Chapter 99

While Mila was technically a bodyguard, she was much better at playing offense. We’d used those skills in a variety of different ways, almost from the very beginning, and the team had come to a sort of equilibrium around her tendencies. That was fine when we needed someone to play the role of a blocker or a defender, so that someone else could do the real work while our targets were distracted. When it came right down to it, though, she had comparatively little practice at setting up a perimeter or establishing security protocols that were meant to stand the test of time.

We protected ourselves by staying light and mobile. An attacker couldn’t very well hit us if we weren’t in any place long enough for someone to set a plan into motion. The Texan, however, had established a base of operations in Dallas. His entire operation was so rooted in the area that, when he’d decided to relocate, it had required a fleet of eighteen wheelers, a boat, and a bunch of hired laborers to facilitate the transfer of goods and supplies.

He’d been reckless, yes, and he hadn’t taken into account how badly certain anonymous criminal forces might want his information, but I couldn’t imagine that he was stupid. That meant he must have taken some steps to protect himself, either with technology or with manpower. And that meant his kidnapper must have taken the time to suss out those details, in order to circumvent any measures the Texan might have had in place.

All of that was elementary. Just a progression of logical points connected to other logical points. The problem was that we didn’t have anyone on the team proper with the necessary skill-set to figure out what the Texan might have done to protect himself. CJ was the head of my grandmother’s personal security, though. Her position as a potential target who was almost terminally unwilling to travel was the closest analogue to the Texan. If anyone might be able to provide a glimpse at the protocols we needed to examine, it would be CJ.

Of course, I had no idea how to ask him those questions without accidentally giving the whole game away.

How long have you, uh…been working with Virginia?” I asked CJ. I tried to be casual about it, but I could hear the effort in my voice was unmistakable.

Since I’d learned about his affair with my grandmother, CJ and I had made an active effort to avoid each other. At most, we exchanged five or six sentences before one of us found a reason to be somewhere else. Already, he was shifting in his chair, nervously dodging my eyes. That wouldn’t do.

I looked at Devlin and gestured for him to take over. He knew what we needed as well as anyone. Probably better, in fact. CJ wasn’t likely to know the details of the Texan’s specific electronic surveillance network, which was what I would need.

CJ,” Devlin said. He sounded perfectly at ease, like he’d known the man for years instead of only days. “You know, we spend so much time dealing with Virginia and we never really got around to meeting each other. That’s weird, right?”

CJ shook his head.

Really?” Devlin pressed. “Almost every time we’ve seen her, you’ve been there.”

People don’t notice me,” CJ said. “It’s kind of the job.”

Oh?”

He nodded. “Miss Ford doesn’t get a lot of visitors anyway,” CJ said, “and the ones she does get don’t really like to talk to the help.”

You’re more than the help, though,” Devlin said in a conspiratorial tone. “You’ve been on her security for how long now? A year? Two?”

Five,” CJ said. “But I’ve only been in charge of the estate’s protection for three. I worked my way up to get there. That’s actually how we…”

He trailed off and I mentally filled in the rest of the sentence. That’s how we started seeing each other. I grimaced at the mental images that sentence summoned before pushing them down, as far as they would go. CJ, thankfully, didn’t notice.

Well,” Devlin said, neatly filling in the dead space before it could become awkward, “that’s not how we like to do things.”

CJ smiled weakly at Devlin, even as his eyes flickered briefly in my direction. I pretended not to see anything.

Mila cleared her throat before Devlin could say anything else. She lifted one finger a millimeter from the table’s surface, pointing towards the bathroom. I didn’t have a chance to look up before Virginia took her seat again.

Your mother,” Virginia said, practically lathering the word with disdain, “is already looking for us. Apparently, there’s some delightful brunch nook that a family friend recommended.”

I couldn’t help but smile. When Virginia and Elizabeth weren’t at each other’s throats, the antagonism between the two women was a source of constant entertainment. The problem was that – at least, when last I’d been around both of them at the same time – they were almost always at each other’s throats.

When?” I asked.

Now.” Virginia sighed. “Since I’m supposed to be retired, I obviously shouldn’t already have plans for the day. I should be able to drop everything and rush over to chitchat over omelets and mimosas.”

Did you have any other plans?”

Virginia hesitated. “Technically, no,” she said finally. “But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t about to make some plans.”

I coughed to conceal a sudden giggle. “Well. Um. Are you going to go?”

I don’t have a choice, do I?” Virginia rolled her eyes, then grew very serious. “You need me to keep them busy, don’t you?”

I wouldn’t have phrased it like that, but she was functionally correct. She’d just made it seem as though as I didn’t want to spend time with my parents which was…a complicated situation, even when I wasn’t concerned for my continuing good health. I nodded, instead of trying to parse that convoluted train of thought into a sentence that she would understand.

Then I guess I’m going.” Virginia pulled a hundred dollar bill out of her purse and laid it on the table, then waved away my preemptive protest. “I’ll keep my phone on me, in case you need anything. And I’ll let you know as soon as I’m done. I’m not pressuring you or anything like that, but don’t forget that I want to help, okay?”

I nodded again. So many people in my life were acting completely different, all of a sudden, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Virginia, being helpful and understanding without asserting her own will over everyone else’s? Devlin, seemingly perfectly okay with me risking my life? Mila being…herself?

Virginia stood up from the table, leaned over to kiss CJ on the cheek, and left the restaurant.

She’s something, isn’t she?” Devlin asked.

Yes,” CJ said, “she certainly is.”

Devlin lowered his voice and leaned in. Unconsciously, CJ mirrored the gesture. It was an old trick, but it never seemed to fail when Devlin attempted it. “How did…that…even get started?”

Silence fell. It didn’t seem that CJ was going to answer Devlin’s question, and I found myself wondering why he’d asked it in the first place. Details about my grandmother’s love life wasn’t going to help us figure out where the Texan was, how to save him, or how to ultimately nullify the threat presented by the Mouse.

I’m not sure,” CJ said, just when I was sure he wasn’t going to speak again. “I’m really not. It just sort of…look, do you know what it’s like to meet someone like her? A woman who’s got the whole world at her fingertips, who can do whatever she wants…and she wants to talk to you?”

I know,” Devlin said. “Trust me, I get it.”

It was like that. I’d just taken over as head of the security detail and, one day, she invited me into the house. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been inside before, of course. Someone had to set up the cameras, oversee the interviews…you know what I mean.”

I didn’t, but I kept my mouth shut. Before I’d gone my own way, much of my life had been spent under the watchful eye of one security company or another. I’d never really thought about it. Even when I’d decided on an alternative career, my primary concern had been how to beat security, not the process by which security was established.

So she invited you in?” Devlin asked. “Then what?”

CJ hesitated again, but even I could tell that he was warming to the subject. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. He was a man in love – with my grandmother, which still made me cringe internally – and he wasn’t able to tell anyone about it. Even if he quit the job and passed the mantle to someone else, CJ would never be able to publicly talk about his relationship without fear. The allure of discussing it with someone else must have been intoxicating.

We talked,” CJ said. “That’s all. We just had a conversation. And the next day, she asked me to have another one. Then another one. Then…”

Then one thing led to another,” Devlin finished for him. “And now here you are.”

CJ’s expression darkened. He glanced at the door my grandmother had left through and frowned. “And now, here I am.”

How are you doing with that?” Devlin didn’t bother to explicitly detail what that meant. It was clear from the context, even to me.

It’s difficult,” CJ admitted. “You, Sarah, and her husband are the only people who know about us. And your bodyguard, of course.”

Mila glanced up from her desert and grunted in acknowledgment. Devlin frowned, his expression a near-perfect match for the dissatisfaction on CJ’s face, but merely gestured for him to continue.

We’ve been together for a long time,” CJ said, “but no one knows.”

Do you want people to know?” Devlin asked.

CJ weighted the question in silence for a few moments. “I want her to want people to know,” he said finally.

Devlin just nodded. “And you’ve just been dealing with that? How?”

It’s easier than you’d think,” CJ said. “We just don’t talk about it. Virginia doesn’t really travel, so it’s easy to keep her safe. I keep up with the home security and she doesn’t go out of her way to antagonize people.”

Out of her way?”

CJ shrugged. “Virginia is a wealthy, unmarried woman. There are always going to people who think that she’s going to be their ticket to fame and she’s always going to have rivals.”

How so?”

I couldn’t help but notice how Devlin was expertly guiding CJ into giving up information. I’d seen him perform that trick on a dozen different marks over the years and, in all that time, it had never grown less impressive. He wasn’t even asking questions, really. All Devlin did was prompt CJ whenever he fell silent, and CJ seemed endlessly willing to spill his guts to any attentive party.

She knows people,” CJ said.  “Powerful people.  And she’s obviously powerful, too.  Apparently, when you’ve been a titan of industry for as long as she has, the difference between your enemies and your friends gets real blurry.”

And you think that, as long as she keeps to herself and doesn’t rock the boat, her…associates will be content to leave her alone?”

More or less.  But there’s still the crazies who want to make a name for themselves or think that she’s got money stashed in an empty room.  There aren’t as many of those as you’d think.”

I can see that,” Devlin said.  He took a moment to pick his words carefully.  “How long do you think you’ll be okay with the way things are?  With…you know, everything.” 

CJ heaved a sigh in response.  “I can’t believe we’ve been…together…this long.  It’s not that I’m not happy with her.  And if this is the only way that we can keep what we have, I’m willing to be a little unhappy when she has to play a part in front of guests.”

You could get another job,” Devlin suggested.

If I wanted to have an easier, better paying job, she could easily arrange that.  Hell, she’s certainly tried to do it before.”

That was so surprising that I spoke up without thinking.  “What?  She’s tried to get you to work for someone else?”

Of course she has,” CJ said.  “Just because it’s not hard protecting her doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.  It doesn’t matter how much planning you have if someone surprises you while you’re at the grocery store or stepping out a cab.  Especially now, if you know what I mean.”

So why didn’t you?” I asked.  “Take the offer, I mean.”

Before you came into town or after?”

Both?”

CJ held up two fingers.  “At first, I thought that it was the best way to stay close to her.  I’m still not sure if that’s true or not.  Now, though?  As long as she’s helping you with whatever trouble you’ve got – and she is going to help you, no matter what I or anyone else says about – then someone’s got to be here to make sure that someone’s helping her.  I couldn’t leave that to anyone else.”

The yawning age gap between CJ and my grandmother hadn’t suddenly grown slimmer, but I found that I could respect the notes of commitment and fidelity in his voice.  I still didn’t want to think about it in too much detail, of course, but the idea itself wasn’t quite as galling as it had been.

She makes it impossible sometimes,” CJ continued.  “I’m supposed to be the first one in a room, but she’ll do everything in her power to take the lead if I let her.”

My eyes caught Devlin’s and I saw the wheels spinning behind his eyes.  I couldn’t imagine what he’d latched onto, so I rewound the conversation in my head and replayed it.  I might not be as naturally talented at skulduggery and subterfuge, but I wasn’t a novice either. 

We’d been talking about my grandmother, whose relationship with her lead security guard wasn’t particularly salient to our problems.  Instead of using the conversation to lower CJ’s defenses, Devlin had focused on the two people themselves: their courtship, how long they’d been involved, and how it made CJ feel.  What could any of those things have to do with the price of bread or the Texan’s location?  How would knowing any of what we’d discovered in the last few minutes bring us closer to dealing with the threats arrayed against us?

I realized that I was thinking like a thief.  Like Devlin, specifically.  That was better than thinking like a prey animal, though not by much.  Devlin wasn’t the type of person to kidnap someone, normally, and he certainly wouldn’t be a party to wholesale slaughter.  Neither would Mila, for that matter.  No matter what she did, I didn’t believe for an instant that she was capable of cold-blooded murder.  Maybe in the past – I couldn’t say with any certainty what she might have done in her days with Aiden  – but not anymore.  She’d changed, just as we’d changed.

No.  I needed to think like someone else, to look at it through their eyes.  I needed to think like the Twins.

I contorted my thought processes as best as I could, cobbling together a framework from my impression of the Twins coupled with what Mila had been able to tell me about them.  I hadn’t worked beside or against many established criminal cabals during my career, but I’d watched movies.  Those weren’t typically resources I mined for inspiration, but it had worked for Devlin, hadn’t it?  We’d gotten the basic idea for our pursuit of Max from his film selection.  Why shouldn’t it work here, as well?

When I had constructed a flawed mental lens that vaguely resembled what I thought of the Twins, I tried examining the conversation through it.  Almost immediately, a possibility leaped out at me.  It was the sort of thing that I would have immediately dismissed out of hand, but the Twins…no, they wouldn’t shoot down any idea without considering its potential.

CJ was supposed to be my grandmother’s protector and, by all appearances, he took that job seriously.  In a dangerous situation, he would probably be more likely to throw himself in harm’s way to protect her.  But the relationship between the two of them had thrown the balance of power entirely out of…well, balance.  By trying to move him into another job, Virginia was trying to protect CJ.  How far, then, would she go to keep her lover away from harm’s way? 

Would she…subvert her own security measures and put herself at risk? 

I looked back at Devlin and immediately recognized the light of dawning understanding on his face.

Max,” he said. 

Exactly,” I replied.

 

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Chapter 98

What do we know?” Devlin asked. “And what are we just guessing at? Let’s start with that.”

Mila, Devlin, and I were seated in the corner booth of an otherwise empty restaurant. In order to ensure that my parents couldn’t just drop in, we’d called a cab and made our way across town to a place so rustic that it didn’t even have functional wireless internet. Virginia and CJ were supposed to join us within the hour, so we needed to use the time available to discuss everything that she didn’t quite know about yet. Privacy and isolation were assets, at the moment.

Someone kidnapped the Texan,” Mila said.

And got rid of any witnesses while they were at it.” Devlin speared a forkful of barbecue and chewed on it thoughtfully for several seconds. “Why?”

Why did they take the Texan?” I asked. “Or why did they kill the witnesses?”

Both?” He shook his head before I could answer. “No, let’s focus on the first thing. The Texan sells information. You wouldn’t have to kidnap him if you wanted to pick his brain.”

You’d just set a meeting and discuss the price,” I said. “That makes sense.”

And another thing I don’t understand,” Devlin continued. “Eliminating witnesses seems to be the kind of thing one does when one wants to cover their tracks. Mila?”

That’s right,” she said. “And?”

Wouldn’t it have been smarter to take everyone, so that no one else realized that something had happened? Or, if you absolutely have to get rid of the dock workers, couldn’t you transport them somewhere else?” Devlin scratched at his chin. He’d shaved off the beard-in-training during his shower. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the change or why I cared about the change at all.

Dump the bodies, you mean?” Mila tilted her head to one side and moved some of her desert – an oversized slice of pecan pie – into her mouth. “Where would you even put two dozen bodies?”

I don’t know,” Devlin said. “Where would you put them?”

The question provoked another stretch of silence from Mila. I used the time to privately marvel at how quickly he’d adapted to the new paradigm. We’d always lived on the dangerous side of things. When we’d accepted the Lady’s contract, the threat of violence had escalated. Now, we’d seen multiple people lose their lives in person, and Devlin had adjusted to the new normal with barely a hint of difficulty. I wondered if his ability to process everything at light speed was an inherent part of his personality or if he hadn’t been totally honest about his previous experience.

How much time do I have? ” Mila asked. “Hypothetically, I mean?”

You said the attack came an hour or two before you guys got there?” Devlin tilted his head one way, then the other. “Start with that. We can extrapolate later, if we need to.”

Mila nodded. “There’s only a couple of options. One: load them onto the boat, take them to your destination, and then sink the thing. It would all come out eventually, but you’d have a considerable head start at that point.”

Could the attackers have done that?”

She shrugged. “It’s possible, I guess. That’s what I’d do if I wanted to leave people confused for a bit.”

Other options?” Devlin asked.

Burn down the building,” Mila said. “Put in a token effort to make it look like an accident and then move on. That would give the local police an excuse not to look too closely.”

I raised my hand to get her attention. “You’re assuming the cops aren’t on the take?”

Either way, really,” she said.

I sipped at my soda. “But they didn’t do either of those things. Why not?”

Whoever the attackers are, they weren’t worried about people knowing what they did,” Mila said. “There’s really no other reason to leave the evidence of the crime out on full display like that.”

Or,” Devlin said, “they wanted someone to know what they did.”

Mila raised an eyebrow.

Stop me if I say anything demonstrably wrong,” Devlin said. “Someone or someones decided to hit the Texan as he was trying to transport his stash of secrets to an undisclosed location. These same people killed every witness to the crime and left those bodies behind in an orgy of evidence for anyone who came looking.”

Like Max,” I said. “She wasn’t going to let that kind of slaughter go by without a response.”

Like Max,” Devlin said, “but not Max. If they wanted to get her, they could have just waited until she showed up. It’s not like they needed to work on a specific timeline.”

Unless they did,” Mila said, “and we just don’t know about it.”

Devlin acknowledged that possibility with a slight nod. “I’m suggesting that the gruesome scene wasn’t a byproduct, but a goal, in and of itself. What if someone wanted to leave a message to everyone else that they were playing for keeps?”

I ran through the points in my mind. If I was willing to accept that anyone would kill two dozen people to make a statement, then Devlin’s theory held water. It didn’t necessarily fit with the Twins, though; neither Akumi nor Kira had any reason to declare themselves to the Texas underworld like that.

That I knew about, at least.

It didn’t jibe with the Mouse’s usual M.O., either. He’d always worked behind the scenes, avoiding attention whenever possible. In order to keep his other identity as the infamous Caelum under wraps, he’d gone so far as to effect an entire second online identity. Anyone that paranoid and that circumspect wouldn’t go around attracting scrutiny for scrutiny’s sake.

At the same time, he almost certainly wasn’t doing his own fieldwork. He could have hired someone to handle anything in person and that individual might have seen an opportunity to get creative, without his direct input. Or, I realized, the atypical behavior might well have the point. By leaving a bloody spectacle behind, the Mouse could direct everyone to other, more dramatic suspects.

We’re not getting anywhere,” I said. “There are a million different reasons why someone could have killed the dockworkers and kidnapped the Texan. Each reason comes with its own ready-made list of suspects. Each suspect leads us down an entirely different train of thought.”

She’s got a point,” Mila said.

Devlin sighed. “I know. I know. But I’m spinning my wheels here, trying to come up with some lead we can follow. If we can’t get a grip on something, we’ll never be able to find the Texan.”

And if we can’t find him,” Mila said, “we won’t be able to use Max to find the Mouse. Unless you think you can sweet talk her?”

The question was directed at me. I answered by dramatically blowing air out of my nostrils. “For whatever reason, Max is solely focused on finding the Texan. If we change our focus, she’s just going to disappear into the wind.”

Well,” Devlin said, “we needed him anyway, didn’t we? Finding out who took him and getting him back helps everyone.”

I thought about the steadily decreasing timer, ticking away the seconds before my security failed and the Mouse gained access to all of my secrets. The Texan could bring us closer to a solution; he could also be completely useless. Every second we spent debating the specifics of the abduction was a second we weren’t spending on the problem of the Mouse.

Instead of bringing that up, I finished off my soda and leaned back in the chair. “So, basically, we have nothing solid to go on and nowhere in particular to start looking. We don’t know who did it and we have no idea how we might go about finding that information. And we have to rescue the Texan before whoever took him decides that keeping him hostage isn’t worth the trouble anymore.”

Yeah,” Devlin said. “That about sums it up.”

I used to have clear goals,” Mila mused. “Go here, do this, get out.”

Devlin pointed his fork at the remains of her pecan pie. “Sure, but was the food this good?”

Mila rolled her eyes and said nothing. But she did take an extra large bite of pie.

We tossed around various ideas and shot down as many as we created for the next forty-five minutes. Mila eventually slipped our server a twenty and retrieved pitchers of water and Diet Coke for herself. The manager on duty was nowhere to be seen, so our server didn’t get in any trouble when he found an isolated table at the far end of the restaurant, sat down, and started to idly scroll through something on his phone.

Virginia arrived at the very end of the hour, CJ in tow. She wore comically over-sized sunglasses and a scarf to cover her hair. He was dressed in casual, worn jeans and a nondescript t-shirt. They found us easily and, after a brief shuffle of moved chairs and apologies, found places to sit.

Your mother,” Virginia said, by way of greeting, “must have alerted every media outlet in the city that she was visiting. Paparazzi started after us like locusts as soon as we left the hotel. I didn’t know if that was the kind of thing that could hurt you, so CJ and I ended up having to change cabs a few times.”

That’s a good idea in general,” Devlin said. “But right now, we’re just having lunch. It wouldn’t hurt anything for you to be seen with us.”

Virginia waved a dismissive hand in front of her face. “I don’t want to be seen, at all. There’s a reason I live by myself in Atlanta. Anyway.”

Did Mom tell you about how long she’s staying in town?” I asked.

She didn’t,” Virginia said, “but your father did. A week? Maybe longer? It’s almost like she’s trying to ruin my vacation.”

Strictly speaking, we aren’t really on a vacation.”

Virginia passed a hand over her eyes. “Obviously, I know that. You get what I meant, though.”

I wasn’t sure that I did, until she laid a hand on top of CJ’s in an unconscious gesture of affection. Then, I was absolutely sure that I didn’t want to know.

Did you find anything about the, uh, painting you’re looking for?” Virginia asked abruptly. She lowered her voice before speaking, so I had to reverse engineer the words before replying.

Not quite,” I said. “On the bright side, what we’re looking for right now is probably in the city.”

Probably?”

Mila shrugged. “The odds are good, I think.”

Can I help?” Virginia asked.

I shook my head. “Not with this. It’s…kind of a high risk, high reward situation.”

Virginia looked like she was going to complain. She tightened her grip on CJ’s hand momentarily, then relaxed. “What are you going to do about your parents, then?”

I refilled my cup with soda. “Honestly? I was hoping you’d be able to run interference for us. At least for the next few days.”

Virginia took the pitcher from my hands, searched the table intently, and finally spotted an unused cup near Devlin. She took the cup and filled it with soda for herself. “What kind of interference did you have in mind?”

So. Um.” I took a deep breath. She really wasn’t going to like what came next. “Mom’s got a whole agenda planned for the next couple of days. If you could maybe fill in for me, then -”

Fill in?” Virginia repeated. “You expect me to voluntarily spend time with that woman?”

Not by yourself,” I said quickly. “There’ll be a buffer between the two of you, in addition to Dad.”

Who? Your husband?”

Not quite.”

Virginia gestured for me to elaborate.

There was someone with us, right after we got into that car accident,” I said.

I remember, Sarah. What about him?”

Well. Somehow, Mom got the idea that he’s my husband.”

Virginia closed her eyes and silently counted to ten. She spoke with her eyes still shut. “And your real husband doesn’t have a problem with that?”

Even though she couldn’t see me, I scrupulously went out of my way to look anywhere except at Devlin. “He understands the stakes,” I said.

Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Mila asked.

No,” I admitted. “No, of course I’m not.”

It frees up Michel to move around on his own,” Devlin pointed out. “And, if Barrett’s with your grandmother, at least we won’t have to worry about what he’s doing.”

He didn’t point out that we needed to keep Barrett on the periphery of our true business in town. Coming up with a strategy to deal with all of our assorted enemies would be hard enough without the additional handicap of a team member who was out of the loop. Sending Barrett and Virginia to occupy my parents would allow me to work without restriction for at least a day or two.

At the same time, it meant allowing Barrett to get unbearably close to my real life. Devlin hadn’t met my family before. I could only imagine how much it galled him to have Barrett stroll in and garner an invitation I’d never extended to my own husband. Whatever was going on inside Devlin’s head, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to work through it as well as he was.

This is important?” Virginia asked. “You aren’t just giving me busy work?”

Trust me,” I said. “Keeping my parents from looking too hard at what I’m doing is the best thing for everyone. Besides, you might be able to pick up something from my new friend that I couldn’t get on my own. Never know when that’s going to be useful.”

She sighed. “It’s just as well. CJ, would you mind staying with them for the next couple of days, then?”

It was so easy to forget about CJ. He looked up from his phone and raised a curious eyebrow at Virginia. She lifted one in response and something was communicated between the two of them. Whatever message Virginia had sent him, it hadn’t been what CJ wanted to hear. He sank slightly into himself.

Of course,” he said.

He won’t get in your way,” Virginia said, before I could get out a protest. “But if you need someone to pick up things or…whatever it is that you need him to do, he’ll be available. If nothing comes up, I’m not trying to force him onto you.”

I sighed. As far as we knew, CJ only knew what Virginia knew. That meant we’d still have to keep him away from anything sensitive. It would be easier to do that with a civilian than another thief. As compromises went, I didn’t hate this one as much as I could have.

Alright, that’s fine. If you need a list of places to take Mom and Dad, just let me know. I can get something like that for you pretty easily.”

Virginia pushed back in her chair, got to her feet, and grumbled under her breath while she walked to the bathroom. I caught the tail end of her diatribe. “Knowing Elizabeth, she’s probably had this whole thing planned for months, just in case. That’d be just like her.”

A few puzzle pieces drifted from one place to another in my mind. They didn’t quite fall into place, but they did begin to resemble the shape of an idea.

I turned to Devlin and Mila. “We’ve been trying to figure this out by asking the usual questions. Who, what, when, where…that sort of thing.”

And we shouldn’t be doing that?” Mila asked.

I shook my head. “We should, but we’ve been forgetting the most obvious problem. How.”

Devlin caught on almost instantly. “You mean, instead of trying to figure it out from the evidence left over…”

I finished for him. “…we should be trying to figure out the crime. How to pull off something like this. Figure that out and we should be able to narrow down our pool of suspects. We might even be able to point the finger squarely at the guilty party.”

CJ was feigning interest in his phone, but I could tell that his attention was actually on us. Which was just as well. Who better than my grandmother’s head of security to help us figure out the best way to get to a protected person, after all?

Chapter 97

When I woke up, Mila was seated at my desk with a leather kit spread out in front of her.  She eased one tiny knife out from a sheath and tested its point against the pad of her finger. Unsatisfied, she found a whetstone in her pocket and set to sharpening the blade’s edge in a series of slow, steady motions.  After thirty or forty seconds, she checked the point again and grunted as its sharpness met with her exacting standards.  The knife went back into its sheath and she reached for another one.

Sam uncurled himself from a white ball of fluff and fur, stalked across the desk until he was directly in front of Mila, and meowed loudly in her face.  She sighed and, instead of getting to work on another one of her knives, used that hand to scratch along the side of Sam’s neck. 

Don’t give me that face,” Mila said to the cat.  “You’re the one who decided you had a new favorite person.”

Sam yawned, pink tongue curling back in his mouth, and bit lightly at her knuckles.  Mila endured the attack and retaliated by increasing the vigor of her neck scratches.

The cat meowed again, louder, and slinked past Mila.  He jumped to the floor, padded across the floor, and curled up on top of the room’s air conditioning vent.  Mila tracked the cat with her eyes until her gaze eventually fell on me.  I felt an irrational surge of shame.  Had I interrupted some moment that Mila would’ve preferred to keep to herself?  Could I even be blamed because I’d happened to wake up right then?

Mila didn’t seem embarrassed in the slightest.  “Hope you don’t mind me using your room,” she said.

It’s fine,” I said, “but why?  Do you think something’s going to happen?”

I’m always thinking about that as a possibility, sure, but there isn’t anything specific.”  She gestured to her array of weaponry.  “Your room has a better desk.”

She glanced down at her cat.  Sam had either already fallen back asleep or he was so comfortable that there wasn’t any functional difference. 

I’d fallen asleep in my clothes, so my modesty wasn’t in any danger as I pushed off the covers and staggered over to the coffee pot and room service menus.  “What’d I miss?”

Mila filled me in on the details while I ordered food and began to put my mind back to work.  I’d been asleep for about five hours, although Mila could only personally attest to two of those.  After I’d retired to my bedroom, she’d debriefed Virginia on the latest developments.  She’d used a carefully redacted version of events, which neatly excised anything that my grandmother might deem too reckless or ill-planned.  Also, Virginia hadn’t been downstairs for the conversation with my parents, so she needed to be brought up to speed on that, as well.

After that, Mila had taken it upon herself to ‘escort’ Barrett back to his hotel.  The cat burglar had protested, claiming that he couldn’t risk having anyone know exactly where he was staying, but Mila hadn’t been willing to take no for an answer.

I told him that he’d either take me to his hotel,” Mila said, “or I’d knock him out, go through his pockets for a hotel key, and take him there myself.”

Wisely, Barrett had chosen the second option.  As soon as she was sure he wasn’t following her, Mila had reached out to her local contacts to resupply.  We weren’t attacking the Texan anymore, so the full breadth of the local Underworld was available to her.  It wouldn’t matter much if the Twins knew that we’d purchased weapons or body armor; odds were, if we ended up going against them, they would eventually know exactly who had attacked them.

She had also drilled down on a few details with her friends, hoping to gain some perspective on the kidnapping.

Here’s the thing,” Mila said.  She used her teeth to tear a chunk out of a chocolate donut, topped with salted caramel icing.  It hadn’t been on the menu, but there were benefits to being a Ford.  “I don’t think the Texan has left the building, so to speak.”

Why not?” I asked around a mouthful of eggs and bacon.  I took a swig of coffee to wash that down before continuing.  “If the Twins – or whoever else, I know – wanted to kidnap an information broker and all of his information, wouldn’t leaving the state be the smart thing to do?”

That would be the typical thing to do, sure,” Mila said.  “But when has anything typical ever happened to us?”

Fair point.  I considered her idea and found a lot of points in its favor.  The Trinity River ran south, towards Mexico and freedom.  Using the Texan’s stolen boat to transport his own data would have been elegant and simple.  And predictable.  Instead, sending the boat downriver and finding some way to head north would confuse the efforts of any pursuers.

I voiced those thoughts to Mila, but she disagreed with a slight shake of her head.  “Why go north at all?  Why not just stay right here and see who leaves town to chase him down?”

Another fair point. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to catch a flight down South, in hopes of catching the kidnappers en route to their destination.  Except, if Mila was right, that would have played right into their hands.  Two Fords arriving in Dallas wasn’t remarkable; those same Fords leaving the city within hours of an attack might be enough of an anomaly to get someone’s attention. 

So you think he’s still in Dallas?”  I asked.

Probably not in the city itself,” Mila said.  “Or even the outskirts.  But somewhere in Fort Worth, maybe?  Or closer to the center of the state?  That’s definitely a possibility.”

Any way we could narrow that down?  We don’t really have the time to draw up a grid and check Texas, inch by inch.”

That depends on what information your friend can give us.  The more she knows, the more I’ll be able to narrow it down.”  Mila stressed the word ‘friend’ and gave it a touch of sarcasm.

I sighed.  “What’s going on with Max?”

No word.  Not much from Michel, either.”  The corners of her mouth tightened.

What qualifies as not much?”

They found a place to set up and they should be done unloading everything worth saving by sometime tonight.”

Did he say where they are?”

Mila shook her head.

We sat in silence for a minute or two.  Mila finished the rest of her donut, wiped her hands, and heaved a sigh.  “You might as well,” she said.

Might as well what?”

She gave me a significant look.

I blew air out through my nostrils and rolled my shoulders.  “Alright, fine.  How’s Devlin?”

Still injured, for what that’s worth.  He was taking up position in his room when I left to help Barrett back to his own hotel.”

You told him what happened?”

Mila nodded.

Everything?”

She nodded again.  “He probably wasn’t thrilled about your decision to play chicken with a trio of eighteen wheelers,” she said, “but seeing as you did make it back, it looks like he’s dealing.”

Does that seem strange to you?” I asked her.

Mila tilted her head.

He just seems…entirely too calm about this,” I continued.  “You remember when he took it upon himself to go sit in an interrogation room for his grand scheme?”

I remember that you paced a groove into the carpet, yeah.”

And he was just…what?  Sitting in the lobby, patiently waiting for us to come back?”

You’d have to ask him,” Mila said.  “Reading people isn’t my thing.”

That wasn’t true, but this wasn’t the time or place to bring it up.  Mila’s ability to discern intent or danger from certain people could only have been rooted in a high sense of empathy.  Whether she wanted to admit that about herself wasn’t really all that important at the moment.

She was right, though.  Devlin had been distracted and hurried when we’d arrived back at the hotel.  With several hours to stew over his feelings, he probably wouldn’t be a great mood.  But we needed to work well together and that meant I had to talk to him.

I pushed the remaining trays of food away from me, told Mila that I’d be back shortly, and made my way down the hallway to Devlin’s room.  I knocked twice on the door, paused, then knocked twice more before he finally answered.

If I’d been exhausted following my round of automobile jousting, then Devlin was hollowed out.  His eyes were lined with red and he still hadn’t found the time to shave.  Even his generally wispy facial hair was darkening to an appreciable level of scruff.  He blinked at my appearance, similarly disheveled but at least wearing a cool leather jacket, and then rubbed at his eyes with his uninjured hand.

I was about to hop in the shower,” he said immediately. “I know that’s exactly what anyone would say when they get caught like this, but I’m serious.”

I looked past him, so that I could see the inside of the room.  Devlin had acquired a laptop and it glowed softly from the coffee table.  The television was on, but muted.  A half-eaten plate, loaded with bacon and pancakes, had been abandoned to the far end of the table.  Next to that, a comically oversized coffee cup still brimming with liquid.  A thin trickle of steam snaked out from the mirrored black surface of the coffee.

Housekeeping was getting in my way,” Devlin said, when he noticed the trajectory of my eyes.  “It’s so hard to find good help these days.”

Can I come in?” I asked.

He hesitated just long enough to make me doubt.  “Sure, sure.”

Devlin leaned against the counter in the kitchen; I sat on the end of the couch closest to him.  The computer screen went dark just as I sat down, so I wasn’t unable to see what he’d been reading.

What’s up?” Devlin asked.  He opened the fridge and began rifling through its contents.

You’re pretending to be really okay with all of this,” I said, “but I know you well enough to call BS on this whole act.”

Act?”

This isn’t about…us, you know?” I hated that I sounded so indecisive.  “You realize that the two things are different, don’t you?”

Devlin emerged from the fridge with a Diet Coke in one hand and a bottled water in the other.  He handed me the soda and unscrewed the top on his own beverage before responding.

I mean…yes, I get that. Did you think I didn’t get that?”

I didn’t do it to get even with you or anything like that,” I continued. I wanted to stop talking, but I just couldn’t. My guilt had been kept at bay before but now, looking at Devlin in a state of such absolute disarray, it came roaring back.

He averted his eyes. “We wouldn’t be even anyway, Sarah. What I did was worse. I am well aware of that.”

This wasn’t going the way I’d hoped. I fought to regain control of my mouth and tried to change the subject. “Well. Alright, then. I just wanted to make sure that you weren’t holding a grudge or feeling any particular type of way.”

I hadn’t intended to say that either.

I’m not. I’m really not.”

The awkward silence in the room seemed to cause him physical pain. He drank from his water bottle quietly for several seconds before he cleared his throat. “Mila told me about what you saw at the Texan’s dock. Are you okay?”

Fragmented mages flashed through my mind but I pushed them down before they could clarify into anything recognizable. “I’ll be okay,” I said. “Have you ever seen anything like…that?”

You mean, from before we started working together? No. I didn’t get involved in anything that serious back then. It was mostly low level things. Smash and grabs, an occasional private residence.”

Until St. Petersburg.”

Until St. Petersburg,” Devlin said. “Asher and I had been working together for a while and he wanted to go for something a little more ambitious. But I guess the Magi had been watching him for a while at that point. Or he’d been watching them. Who knows?”

That’s when the Lady started paying attention to you, wasn’t it?”

He shrugged. “You’d have to ask her. Good luck getting a straight answer.

In my experience, the Lady’s answers were almost always perfectly straight. The trick was knowing which questions to ask.

Anyway,” Devlin said. “No, nothing I’ve done professionally has ever really prepared me for anything like what we’re doing now.”

Are you scared?”

I hadn’t meant for the question to make it past my lips, but I didn’t really regret speaking it out loud either.

Of course,” Devlin said. “I’m terrified. This was just…I don’t want to say that it’s just been fun and games, but it’s been exciting. Do you know what I mean?”

I did. As much as the wildly unpredictable adrenaline surges made me want to vomit, I could understand how a person got addicted to the rush. When I was in the field, barely keeping myself from disastrous failure, I felt alive. Colors were sharper, sounds clearer. My mind worked the fastest it had ever worked.

But now it’s serious,” I said. “People are dying.”

People have died before,” Devlin pointed out. “At least two in London. Several people in Macao.”

And in Morocco, yes.” The memory of Fatima standing behind her deposed rival, blood dripping from the knife in her hand, would probably stay near the forefront of my mind for the rest of my life. “But those were bad people. Worse people, I guess. We aren’t innocent.”

We’re relatively innocent,” Devlin said. “That’s got to count for something.”

He winked at me. It was such an utterly incongruous action that I giggled before stopping to think about it. That unguarded moment led to another: I grinned up at Devlin. The tightness I’d felt about this conversation began to dissipate.

Now,” Devlin said, “if you don’t mind, I’d really like to take a shower and get properly dressed. We all need to figure out what we’re going to do about your parents. Virginia has some ideas, apparently.”

I’m sure she’s just full of ideas on how to waylay my mother,” I said.

A smile flashed across Devlin’s face. “I’m sure she’ll restrain herself. But. Shower?”

I touched two fingers to my brow in salute and allowed Devlin to escort me to the door. It wasn’t until he’d gently ushered me back into the hallway that I realized how he’d managed to steer the conversation.

We’d avoided almost every topic that might have resulted in an argument: his real feelings, how we’d tackle this next obstacle, Barrett’s presence, or – for that matter – even Barrett’s name. All of that had been carefully avoided.

I thought about knocking on the door again to catch him before he got into the shower. My hand froze about six inches away from the knocker, though. I turned away and walked back to my own room. Things between Devlin and me were good right now. Reaching anything past that level of comfort would require painful conversations about things we both wanted desperately to ignore.

We were good,though. Not great…but good. That would have to be enough for right now.

Chapter 96

Raymond and Elizabeth Ford knew how to make an entrance.  They’d been trained on the proper way to draw the eye by the very best at that sort of thing.  Even though I knew it was an affectation, I couldn’t help but fall under the spell.  Everything about them – how they dressed, how they moved, the way they commanded attention by simple virtue of their presence – had never dimmed in my eyes.  Virginia had changed during the period of time when I’d been actively avoiding my family; my parents, however, had remained exactly the same.

Sarah,” my mother began, “where else would we be?  Our daughter pops back up, as if from outer space; she’s been the victim of a car crash serious enough to warrant national attention; and she wonders why we came to check in on her.”

Your mother was worried,” my father added.  “As soon as she saw the news, she rescheduled the stockholders’ meeting and contracted a jet to bring us straight here.”

Elizabeth nodded.  “And we couldn’t have gotten here quickly enough, it seems.  You look so tired, Sarah.  Are you sure you’re alright?”

My cheeks grew warm and, reflexively, I turned my face away from her.  I couldn’t began to imagine what the bags underneath my eyes looked like and I didn’t want to give her an opportunity to tell me.  In detail.  As she was probably eager to do.

How did you know where I was?” I asked, hoping to change the subject and find some sort of solid ground.

We reached out to Virginia,” Elizabeth said.  She just barely rolled her eyes to convey her feelings about the woman.  “The last time she left Georgia, it took a team of oxen and a dozen skilled men and she ran back home as soon as we looked away.  When we found out that she’d borrowed a car from the local branch of the business, it wasn’t hard to figure out that the two of you must have decided to abscond together. Lord only knows why, though.”

Raymond pressed his lips together for a microsecond at Elizabeth’s terminology, then shook his head and allowed his irritation to slowly bleed away from his face.  “My mother told us that you didn’t want this to become a media spectacle and that we shouldn’t involve ourselves.  Elizabeth and I decided otherwise.”

At least Virginia had made an effort. However, I doubted that she’d made her point in the succinct and cogent way my father intimated.  The screaming matches between those two women had been legendary, frequent, and often quite vile.  I learned my first swear words while sitting at the edge of one such confrontation, courtesy of Virginia’s expansive vocabulary; my first obscene gesture had been a gift from my mother, in response. 

If the two of you are here,” I said, “reporters are going to swarm this place.  The investors will think that you’re scouting out new areas for businesses or shifting your focus.”

They’ll spread rumors and whispers, no matter what we do.” Elizabeth lifted her chin a millimeter or two.  “Let them talk.”

It wasn’t them that I was worried about. “I’m not hurt, honestly, but I just want to relax and let this whole thing blow over.”

Raymond and Elizabeth exchanged a look.  It was Elizabeth who spoke first.  “Actually dear,” she said, “when we rescheduled the meeting, the two of us decided that Dallas was something of an under-served market. The PR people thought it might be a good idea if we met with the shareholders here instead of back at the main office.”

Ah.  Yes, that made much more sense.  Any news report would have definitely stated that I’d been unharmed in the car crash.  Elizabeth wouldn’t cancel a shareholder meeting just to fly cross-country and mother me.  She would, however, use it as an opportunity to develop her personal brand and show face at the local branch.

And your sister, of course,” Raymond said casually.

My head snapped up.  “My sister? What about her?”

Yes, Kesia will also be coming to check in on you,” Elizabeth said.  She gave another one of her patented miniature eye-rolls.  “I know it’s been a while since the two of you were civil with each other, but really.  It’s time for us all to grow up, don’t you think? You’re out here spending time with Virginia, after all.”

It wasn’t that I hated my sister.  Growing up in her shadow had been difficult enough, without the added stress of maintaining a one-sided rivalry.  Everything I’d wanted to become, Kesia already been.  Everything I became, she was better at.  The only area in which I was unquestionably superior was in my thefts and hacks; two things I could hardly throw in her face whenever I saw her again.  I could already imagine the conversation now.

 

Kesia: Oh, I’ve just been working on a cure for cancer and childhood diabetes.  What have you been working on?

Me: Just, uh…traveling.  A lot, lately.

Kesia: It must be so much fun to do whatever you want.  No obligations or responsibilities for my little sister, after all!

 

I gagged just thinking about it.  If Kesia was coming to Dallas, that only meant I needed to finish my business here and get the hell away as soon as possible.  My parents would be difficult enough to avoid for any length of time.  Kesia would make it her mission to haunt me at every turn.  She’d insist on early brunches with ‘the family,’ and long lunches where she talked at length about whatever medical breakthrough she was on the verge of discovering, and late dinners where she could be the very model of a generous, captivating host.  It had been hard enough to deal with her oppressive, passive-aggressive cheerfulness when I hadn’t been dealing with literal matters of life and death.  God, she was just the –

Is this the man Virginia mentioned?” Elizabeth asked.

The question yanked me out of my spiraling thoughts.  She was looking past me to focus on Barrett and Devlin.  They both stood perfectly still, unwilling to respond to Elizabeth’s question and unable to ask me what they should do.  Which was just as well, because I certainly didn’t have an answer for them.

Michel?”  She took two perfectly measured steps forward and extended a hand to Barrett.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you.  I can’t begin to understand what would keep Sarah from introducing you to the family…but I suppose that doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

Of course she’d think Barrett was my husband.  Or, more accurately, that he was my fictional husband.  Virginia thought that I was married to Michel, not that I’d been previously married to Devlin.  She would have told Elizabeth as little as possible about him, simply to be obtuse and irritating, but the fact that I was supposed to be married to a black man must have made it across.

It is, uh, a pleasure to meet you too,” Barrett said.  He took her hand and lightly kissed the back.  I resisted the urge to slap him, but just barely. 

How long have you been in America?” Elizabeth asked.  “Your accent is amazing.  I’ve met many Parisians who aren’t anywhere near as talented, no matter how long they’ve been expatriated.”

At least Barrett had the good grace to appear embarrassed.  “Thank you for the compliment.  It, uh, has not been very long.”

I thought about interrupting and correcting the assumption, but stopped myself before I uttered a syllable.  Any story that I told to explain the mix-up would almost certainly be too complicated to create on the spot.  I’d have to introduce Barrett to my parents now; I couldn’t see any way around that.  And when I finished contriving a story for his presence, I would still have to explain away Michel’s absence in some satisfactory manner.  I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that he was busy working, because then she’d want to know what he was doing.  I couldn’t explain the nature of that work without enduring a slew of well-meaning, persistent questions that would erode any semblance of plausibility in short order.

And I was tired.  I needed to get out of this ambush, find a hole to crawl into, and then pull that hole in after me.  One lie was as good as any other, under the circumstances.  I just needed to make sure that we kept everything from spinning out of control.

Barrett promptly dashed that idea to bits when he wrapped one arm around my waist and pulled me in close to his chest.  “Sarah has been very shy about our relationship,” he said, “but I am not offended by her shyness.”

Sarah?” Raymond asked.  He raised an eyebrow.  “Shy?”

I extricated myself from Barrett’s side and managed to get him between the ribs with an elbow as I did so.  “He’s getting ahead of himself,” I said.

And who’s this?” Elizabeth asked.  She moved her eyes from Barrett to Devlin.  “Another one of my daughter’s friends?  That would be so French of her.”

The heat radiating from Devlin was tangible, but he was still a professional.  He’d follow my lead, no matter his personal feelings.  If one cover identity fell apart – namely, that I was Michel’s wife and not his ex-wife – then he’d adapt and support the new version.  

Just a friend in the regular American way,” he said.  “Devlin Murphy, at your service.”

He removed an invisible hat and gave Elizabeth an extravagantly deep bow.

Sarah,” Elizabeth stage whispered, “your friends are absolutely delightful.  What possible reason would you have for keeping them all to yourself?”

I’ve got my reasons,” I said.  “How long are you going to be here?”

Are you in a hurry for us to leave already?”

Good God, yes.

No,” I said, “of course I’m not.  But, as you can see, I’m perfectly unharmed.  There’s no reason for you to fuss over me.”

Raymond and Elizabeth conferred on the matter within an instant of shared eye contact.  Their ability to do that had been the cause of a frustrating childhood and a confusing adolescence.  Whenever I’d managed to convince myself that my parents were an old school power couple – two people from wealthy and connected families, thrown together in order to preserve the financial order – they did something like that.  Raymond would touch her lightly in the small of her back to convey a message or Elizabeth would tilt her head by a millimeter to say something else entirely. 

That ability had become the guiding light I’d sought out in my relationships.  None of the socialite partners I’d been introduced to at any of the thousand balls I’d attended over my lifetime had ever been able to duplicate that soul-deep connection.  Watching the unspoken communication play out, now that I was an adult, was as confounding as it had ever been.

The shareholders intend to meet here, in Dallas, within a week or two,” Raymond said.

Why such a long wait?”  I asked.

Your sister,” Raymond said, “has convinced us to put everything off for at least that long.  She says that she has an announcement to make, and that she’d love it if we were all in one place when she did so.”

Elizabeth laid a hand on Raymond’s arm, just above the elbow.  “If you hadn’t suffered your accident, she says that she would have found some other way to get in touch.  This was just convenient.”

Raymond frowned.  “I wouldn’t say that a car collision as serious as the one Sarah suffered was convenient.”

Oh, you know what I meant.  Anyway, Sarah: we’ll likely be here until after the shareholders’ meeting.  That should give us all plenty of time to reconnect.”

I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose.  This was just too much.  Whatever spiritual transformation Virginia had gone through, she was at least willing to give me space to work, even if she still only had the barest idea what that work entailed.  Elizabeth would force us to spend time together specifically to spite Virginia, to show her how a real mother acted for her children.  The animosity between the two of them had always been ferocious like that.

Virginia and Ezekiel had built their business together, starting with almost nothing and clawing their way to the top with their wits and talents.  Raymond had been born to the privilege they’d earned, but Ezekiel had gone out of his way to show his only son the value of a dollar.  His success in that endeavor was proven by the size of the family business, only one generation later.  As a result of his elevated social class, it hadn’t taken long before Raymond caught the eyes of a great many powerful women.  Of those women, he’d chosen Elizabeth and wooed her until she’d agreed to marry him.

The root of the enmity between Elizabeth and Virginia started right there.  Elizabeth was rich.  Her family was rich.  Or, more accurately, her adopted family was rich.  They’d been rich for generations, due to several Northern manufacturing plants that had produced weapons and clothing for Revolutionary and Union troops.  At no point in her entire life had Elizabeth ever done without, struggled, or been forced to work for anything.  Even her husband had come to her.  All she’d needed to do was be pretty, nod at the appropriate points, and wait for a suitably impressive proposal.  That was, after all, what her own parents expected her to do.

Virginia never seemed able to get over Elizabeth’s life of luxury; Elizabeth, in turn, refused to understand why her mother-in-law never moved completely out of the way of her only child.   What could have been settled by an earnest conversation ballooned, over many years, into a cold war that was never very far from exploding into open violence. 

I’d learned to navigate that minefield during my youth, primarily for my continued survival.  Threading between the hidden explosive devices would be even harder while I was juggling so many other explosive devices.  One of which, I reminded myself, was going to explode in about three weeks no matter what I did.

I yawned.  This could wait for another day.  I needed to work with Max to save the Texan; I needed the Texan to find the Community; I needed the Community to deal with the Mouse; and I needed to deal with the Mouse so that I could get back to unmasking the Magi and laying them bare for the Lady to deal with.

But now, I needed to eat and to sleep.

Can we start on that tomorrow?” I asked.  I directed the question to Raymond, trusting that he hadn’t built up an immunity my very best puppy dog eyes.  “I’m actually feeling a little tired right now.”

Absolutely,” Raymond said.  “Your mother and I are staying in a property we’ve rented for the next month or so.  There are more than enough rooms for you, your husband, and your friend if you’d prefer to stay with us.”

It would be so much easier for us to see each other,” Elizabeth added. 

I came here with Virginia,” I said, fully aware that I’d pay for my loyalty at a later date.  “I think I’ll sleep here tonight.  We can figure out where we’re staying after that later on, though.  Really, I’m beat.”

Elizabeth attempted to convince me to abandon Virginia, before my father stepped in and said his goodbyes to me, Devlin, and Barrett.  As soon as the door to their rented limousine closed, I turned on my heel and trudged over the elevator.  My head grew heavier with every step.

Sarah?” Devlin asked.

I’m exhausted,” I replied.  “I’m starving.  Can we talk about everything later?”

Every line on his face told me that he wanted to know right now what had happened during our late night attempted heist, but he respected my wishes and didn’t say anything else.  Barrett, who joined us in the elevator, was also quiet.  Instead of a concerned, curious look, he wore a smug grin.  The same smug grin, in fact, that he always seemed to be wearing.  I ignored it just as I tried to ignore Devlin.

We reached my floor and I fumbled for my key card as I walked.  Both men flanked me, one on each side, in case I tipped over or collapsed right there in the hallway.  Nothing like that happened, though, and I made it to my room without incident.

Barrett,” I said, “why did you come up here?  You don’t have a room at this hotel.”

Well,” he said, “I figure that if we’re apparently married now, I should probably stay in the room with you, shouldn’t I?  You know, just for appearance’s sake.”

I leveled a flat look at him.  It was one I’d borrowed from Virginia and I was particularly proud of it.

I’ll be a perfect gentleman,” Barrett said quickly.  “You won’t even know I’m there.”

I’m sure I won’t,” I said. 

Swiping the key card through reader to unlock the door, I leaned against the wood and let my weight carry me into the room.  I stumbled, corrected myself, and then fully regained my balance by gripping the edge of the door.

Night, boys,” I said.

Sarah –“ Devlin began.

We could always –“ Barrett started.

I slammed the door in both of their faces and passed out as soon as my head touched the pillow.

Chapter 95

It was a long ride back into civilization.  We elected to take the trip in the trailer of one truck, more out of a desire for simplicity than because it was any more or less comfortable than the motorcycles.  No one seemed particularly motivated to say anything that might break the oppressive, heavy silence that hung in the air between us.  I avoided eye contact with everyone, but couldn’t quite manage to rid myself entirely of the images lurking around every mental corner. 

I wanted to ask Mila if I’d ever get better at dealing with violence and death.  Two things stopped me.  One, I wasn’t sure if she would be offended by my presumption.  Or if she’d be elated that I’d asked.  Or if she simply wouldn’t understand the question.  Really, there was a lot about Mila that I wasn’t sure of.  It was easier to err on the side of silence now and, if necessary, broach the subject at a later date.

Second, I didn’t want to get better at looking at scenes like the slaughter at the dock.  It should always make my stomach writhe in agony.  If I was ever able to dispassionately look out over a room full of corpses without feeling something, then that would be the day when I retired for real.  Cut all ties and went to live in a monastery or something similar, in the hopes that my soul wasn’t too far gone.

That said, things had gotten much more immediate and physical since I’d learned about the Mouse’s dual identity.  Even before that, in Tangier, I’d stood by as a little girl slit her rival’s throat and taken power over a group of orphaned children.  If I intended to stay involved long enough to get myself out from under the Magi’s baleful eyes, I would need to develop some sort of tolerance.  I couldn’t afford to have my mind shut down whenever I brushed against the seedier, grittier side of the underworld.

Mila could provide some of those lessons, although I doubted she’d really understand my revulsion in a material way.  Devlin, on the other hand, could –

I sat bolt upright, barely keeping myself from slapping my own forehead.  Mila reacted as if she’d been tied to my movements like a marionette.  “What’s wrong?”

I shook my head.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you like that.”

I’m not scared,” Mila said.  “I’m cautious.  There’s a difference.”

Well, then, I didn’t want to make you…cautious, I guess.”  I shrugged off the vocabulary confusion.  “I just remembered that Devlin doesn’t know about any of this.”

It’s not complicated,” Mila said.

That was true, in the most technical way.  It wouldn’t take long to fill him in on what we’d learned, the deals I’d made, and our newest target.  We could have that conversation over a late…dinner?  Was it dinner time?  Or had we transitioned into the early morning hours when breakfast was more appropriate? 

My thoughts were coming unspooled again.  I’d been bouncing between periods of high activity and dead sleep too much lately.  That sort of ping-pong action couldn’t be good for my long-term functionality. 

What were we talking about?” I asked Mila.

She tilted her head and examined for a bit before answering.  “Devlin,” she said.  “You were talking about how little Devlin knows now?”

The feeling of dread from before returned in force.  “It isn’t the new developments that are going to bother him,” I said.

It’ll be that you went without him,” Mila finished for me.  She seemed shocked at her own intuition.

Exactly.”  I looked around the trailer.  Barrett was seated cross-legged on top of a pallet by the door, intently reading through a leather bound journal.  Nothing about his body language told me that he was even aware of our presence anymore, but I lowered my voice anyway.  “We have – had – a rule about that sort of thing.”

Taking on jobs alone?”  Mila tilted her head the other way.  “He was working by himself while you were on sabbatical or whatever, wasn’t he?  Is that different?”

No, it’s…”  I sighed.  “Never mind.”

Mila, however, persisted.  “Does this have anything to do with why you two got divorced in the first place?”

She was on a roll.  While my mind was barely chunking along, grinding from one thought to another with painful slowness, it appeared that Mila had developed a surprising amount of insight into the human condition.  Any other time, I would have welcomed the change as a sign that she was finally opening up.  In the back of the truck, leaving the scene of one murder and speeding towards a conversation that would almost certainly prove awful, I wanted to dunk her head in a river.

Yes,” I said tightly.  Nothing more than that.  There was too much old hurt buried inside of me and I had no desire to dredge all of that up again.  Not with Max driving the trucks via computer, or with Barrett effectively ignoring us in favor of his own pursuits, or with Mila and Michel as an example of the second most dysfunctional couple I’d ever seen. 

Not at all, if I could help it. 

I thought that Mila might press a little harder, but she surprised me by nodding once and then relaxing back into her shadowed nook.  From there, her keen eyes stared straight at the door and, as though through sheer happenstance, directly at Barrett.  She didn’t have her handgun anymore and we couldn’t spare the time to search for it, so she was holding her baton in its extended form across her knees in a light grip. 

Sleep, or even just surface-level dozing, evaded me.  Whenever I tried to close my eyes, a ghastly image from the dock floated in front of my eyes.  When it wasn’t that, I couldn’t stop the hamster wheel inside my head was delivering fresh, exciting versions of what Devlin was going to say to me for doing the exact same thing he’d done…albeit, with a far better reason and under more extenuating circumstances.

So, instead of resting in any meaningful way, I ended up staring listlessly into the middle distance for most of the ride back into town.  When we’d reached the outskirts of the city, Mila took control.  She gave Max a means of contacting us, reminded her that we could do nothing for the Texan without the information contained within the trucks, and then gave her a terse series of instructions.

First thing,” Mila said, “you’re going to want to find a safehouse.  Somewhere you’ve never used before.  Either someone in your organization is talking or you got hacked.”

Someone must have talked,” Max said, less than a second after Mila finished speaking.  I rolled my eyes and stayed quiet. 

Whatever.  Doesn’t matter.  You’ll need to figure out a location that you can work out of, but that isn’t going to attract a lot of attention.  Can you do that?”

It could’ve been my sleep addled mind, but Max looked younger while receiving Mila’s orders.  “I can do that,” she said.

Second,” Mila continued.  “Unload everything.  Or as much as you reasonably can in the next…twenty-four hours?  Give or take?”

Max looked at the surrounding heaps of paper and data.  “How?”

Mila considered that, then frowned.  She allowed a little sigh to escape before she spoke to Michel.  “Can you go with her?”

I can,” he said slowly, “but why?”

We need this intelligence,” Mila said.  “We can’t have the trucks.  If we have to wait until she gets it done by herself, who knows how long it’ll be?  That’s more time that we aren’t working on a plan to rescue her employer.”

Michel wore a dubious expression, but he nodded anyway.  “Okay,” he said.  “And the third step will be to get rid of the trucks?”

Just like Sarah suggested,” Mila said.  I wondered if she was unconsciously throwing credit my way to reinforce the illusion that she worked for me instead of alongside me. “Can you set these up to just keep driving?  Indefinitely?”

Until they run out of gas,” Max said.  “Or until they hit something.”

How far out do you think you can get them?”

Max did some quick calculations in her head and checked the computer monitor. “These aren’t programmed to be particularly discerning,” she said. “And I won’t be able to monitor them after they get too far away from wherever I am. After that, they’ll just follow their programming.”

So, if something were to suddenly get in their way, they’d likely just run over them.”

Probably. I’m pretty sure they’d keep going, though, unless the axles came off or a tire popped.”

That’s not going to work,” I interjected.  Everyone looked at me as I forced myself to my feet.  

It could work,” Max said. “Even at the absolute worst, we could get the Mouse to focus on th wrong county. We might get one of them across state lines.”

I understood what was happening inside her head: she’d begun thinking about this as an intellectual exercise. It must be her method of dealing with the bloodshed at the dock. By framing everything as a thought project, instead of dealing with the brutal reality, Max was trying to wrap her head around everything.

That was all well and good, but I wasn’t going to let her go all the way off the deep end. It was all too easy for someone to forget that real people existed at the other ends of our hacks and heists.

We can’t risk hurting innocent people,” I said. “Taking these too far out is a recipe for disaster.”

We’re innocent people,” Mila said.  “If she can get these a little farther away, anyone coming after us would be starting their search even farther out.”

What she said,” Max echoed. She stood up a little straighter and pushed out her chin. It wasn’t a screaming tell, but I knew what it look like when someone was spoiling for a fight.

We are relatively innocent,” I corrected.  “But there isn’t a head start in the world that I’d be willing to risk some family’s safety over.  Max, get rid of these but do not put anyone in danger to do it. Do you understand?”

A few seconds of tense anticipation passed.  Max wasn’t under my command.  Neither was Mila, obviously, but at least she and I had come to a working relationship. As long as I wasn’t putting myself in harm’s way, she’d follow my lead.  If Max decided to do her own thing, we wouldn’t be able to get anything done together against the Texan’s captors or against the Mouse. Our burgeoning collaboration would come crashing down, right at its very beginning.

Fine,” Max finally said. “And the bikes?”

I’ll take mine, thanks very much,” Barrett called, even though he hadn’t seemed to be paying the conversation any attention. I needed to remember that he was a thief, just like Devlin, and that he probably made a habit of concealing his true abilities.

We’ll take those into town,” I said. “After you finish up, can you take the one we borrowed from Adel back to the Junkyard?”

I directed that last bit to Michel. A soft touch would go further with Max than issuing a series of heavy handed orders. Hackers worked alone; Max was more solitary than most. Being a part of a team, no matter how peripheral I intended for her to be, was sure to be an alien experience.

He nodded. “Alright. What else?”

I shook my head. The temporary burst of energy I’d dredged up to confront Max and assert my position began to wane. “Nothing right now. I need to eat something and then sit down in a dark room for a few hours.”

Max opened her mouth to say something, but Mila stepped in front of her with an upraised hand. “We’ll figure out what we’re going to do when everyone’s rested up,” she said. “No point in pushing ourselves and collapsing before anything gets done.”

A subtle shift in her weight and a tightening of tension in the air transmitted the rest of Mila’s thoughts, clear as day. If Max continued to press the matter, steps would be taken to ensure that I got the rest I so desperately needed.

I wasn’t entirely on board with that threat, but I allowed it without comment. I wasn’t going to step on Mila’s toes, either.

Max yielded to Mila much quicker than she had to me, which I found slightly unfair. “I’ll call you in a few hours,” she said, then turned to Michel. “You ready?”

Michel hesitated momentarily. Mila decided the matter for him by moving to the back of the truck and opening the door.

The sun was rising by the time we got back to the hotel. I thought that the worst effects of my adrenaline withdrawal might finally be wearing off. It wasn’t great, of course – I’d suffered too many highs and lows in too short a period of time – but it seemed like it might be getting better. My stomach was still unsettled but, as I hadn’t eaten anything in the last several hours, it was only able to voice its complaints loudly. A headache was building behind my eyes, though I didn’t think it would get much worse than some pressure and discomfort.

Then, as a guest exited the hotel and threw the doors wide open, I saw Devlin seated in the lobby. He was the very picture of anxiety: bent in half, elbows on his knees, face buried in his hands. His leg jumped up and down at a frenetic pace. Just the sight of him brought a fresh bout of queasiness buoyed on a wave of guilt and embarrassment. Of course he’d been worried; hadn’t I been worried before, in a similar situation?

Except that wasn’t quite right. The largest threat he’d faced had been failure or imprisonment. I could easily have died.

He noticed us as soon as we stepped through the double doors. Devlin jumped to his feet and rushed over to greet us before we’d even made five steps into the lobby.

I decided to be proactive. “You were asleep,” I said, “and there wasn’t any time to wait for you to wake up. Mila got a tip that -”

He cut me off. “You’re okay, right? Nothing happened?”

A lot had happened, but I was okay. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”

Did you get what we need?”

It’s…complicated,” I said. “Look, I know that you wanted to be involved, but what was I supposed to do?”

What you did,” Devlin said, as if it were perfectly obvious.

I blinked. In his position, I would have been livid. Words would not have contained my fury at being left asleep on a couch while Devlin risked his life on a stupidly conceived, poorly thought out plan. Yet there he stood, seemingly unfazed.

He noticed my silence and stepped forward, taking my hands into his. “I was worried, obviously, but I didn’t think you couldn’t do it, Sarah. Seriously? You made a call and I trusted that you made the right one.”

You’re taking this awfully well,” Mila said dryly.

You two made it back,” Devlin said. “I’m not going to bother being angry about something that I apparently slept through.”

I caught a touch of self-recrimination in his voice. He tried, badly, to cover it up with a forced cough.

Besides,” he continued, “I had other things to worry about. Where’s Michel?”

That’s part of the complication,” I said. The change in gears threw me for a moment. “What other things did you have to worry about?”

Devlin ignored the question. “That’s not going to work,” he said to himself. “They were expecting him to be here. If they don’t meet him, then Virginia’s going to -”

I snapped my fingers in front of his face to bring him back to the moment. “Devlin! Who’s expecting him? What’s wrong?”

The news about our accident broke,” Devlin said. “It went national pretty quickly, considering…you know, who you are. I woke up – well, Virginia woke me up – and showed me the reporting. As soon as…”

I waited for him to finish his thought. When he didn’t, I punched him lightly on the shoulder. “As soon as what?”

What is he doing here?” Devlin asked, pointing.

I turned in time to see Barrett sauntering through the lobby doors. He still wore his clothes from our race to catch up with Max’s automated trucks. I stared at him in mute shock until he was within arm’s reach.

What are you doing here?” I asked him.

We had a deal,” he said. “My help, in exchange for information about my old partner.”

And we didn’t live up to our side of the arrangement?”

Didn’t find what I was looking for,” Barrett said. “But if you’re going after the original owner of the information, I figure there’s a better than average chance I’ll get what I want.”

You can’t just…this is where my…” Whatever I’d been about to say degenerated into inarticulate sounds of protest and dismay.

We’ll get you what you want,” Devlin said, “but we’ll have to take care of that later. Sarah, your -”

He didn’t get to finish the sentence. At that exact moment, one of the elevators set against the far wall dinged. Its doors slid slowly open and the two passengers on board stepped out, in perfect, unpracticed unison.

The man wore a light gray cotton suit with the jacket unbuttoned so that it billowed out as he walked. The cornflower blue tie at his neck was done up in an exquisite knot. The fact that it had been loosened by a few inches didn’t take away from the effect. Each step was perfectly measured and distinct. The heels of his shoes clicked neatly against the stone floor of the hotel lobby as he strode forward.

His partner, a stately woman who displayed her gray hairs with unrepentant pride, served as a mirror to the man’s own wardrobe. Her dress was the same shade of blue – the same exact shade – and a faux gray flower blossomed at her breast. She only had on three pieces of jewelry and they were made more distinct by their isolation. A tiny sapphire had been placed in a pure gold setting, then hung around her neck so that the stone dangled just above her sternum. Her wedding ring was a tasteful shade of gold that didn’t quite glitter in the light. The diamond on her engagement band was more significant, although still well within the bounds of discretion.

When they saw me, the pair changed their path so slightly that it seemed they’d always intended to come our way. My heart, slightly lifted by Devlin’s unflinching faith in my abilities, sank down to the soles of my feet, through the floor, and descended into the nether reaches of the Earth’s core.

Sarah,” the man said. I imagined that kings wished their voices were as naturally resonant and commanding as the man’s voice was. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

We didn’t even know that you were visiting with your grandmother,” the woman said. “You should have told us; we would have made plans earlier.”

It was kind of a surprise,” I said. “Mom, Dad; what are you doing here?”

Chapter 94

Mila stayed within a few feet of me as I staggered away from the massacre and threw up into the sparse brush by the building. She didn’t say anything or even look directly at me as I emptied the contents of my stomach onto the ground. A part of me appreciated her tact; the rest of me found it difficult to think about anything other than the bodies.

When there was nothing left for me to throw up, I managed to steady myself. I forced myself to speak in an even, measured tone; my efforts were only marginally successful, but it was better than screaming or vomiting again.

This is bad,” I said. “This is very not good. How could something like this happen?”

Except I already knew the answer to that. I’d already considered the holes in the Texan’s escape plan. While I hadn’t intended to take advantage of those weaknesses, that didn’t mean there weren’t other parties willing and able to launch an attack when the Texan was vulnerable. We had wanted to stage an assault, to motivate the Texan into an alliance. Somebody else had gotten the same idea only they’d gone the distance.

Mila ignored the question I asked and, instead, answered the one I should have asked. “It wasn’t much of a fight. Most of the men inside the building weren’t armed.”

So they didn’t see it coming?”

She shook her head. “They were blindsided. Probably while they were helping the Texan load his stuff into the…”

Mila trailed off. She walked far enough away to look around the corner of the building and then returned, frowning.

What’s wrong?” I asked, ignoring the wealth of things that were wrong with our situation.

The boat,” Mila said. “There’s no boat. Didn’t Max say that she and the Texan were going to load everything from the trucks into a boat?”

If there was no transportation still at the dock, then the attackers must have either stolen or destroyed it. Theft made more sense than destruction. Unless the ambushers hadn’t known to look for caches of information when they made their move…but that was unlikely. This had required planning. Anyone willing to cause the deaths of so many would have taken the time to positively identify his or her target.

Max approached us, wiping weakly at her mouth. Michel followed after her. He held a collapsible baton in one hand, like the one I’d seen Mila use on occasion. His jaw stood out as he locked it into position, forcing himself to appear solid and reliable despite the obvious terror behind his eyes. I drew strength from his posturing and used it to bolster myself.

Why…would anyone do something like this?” Max asked. The question was directed more to herself than to anyone else in particular.

The kind of information your boss had is dangerous,” Mila said. “People have fought, killed, and died for a lot less. You do understand that, don’t you?”

Max opened her mouth to say something, froze, then shook her head and started over again. “Was he in there?”

She didn’t need to clarify who ‘he’ was.

Mila shook her head. “No, I didn’t see him. But that’s not really a good thing.”

How is it not a -” Max cut herself off. I could see the wheels grinding in her head, as she tried to adjust her thinking. “You mean, they took him hostage?”

As a hostage,” Mila said, “or as bait. Or maybe he pissed off the wrong person and this is an entirely personal vendetta. I don’t know enough to make that kind of an assessment.”

What would you need to know?”

Offhand?” Mila gave the question a few moments of serious thought. “A list of the people he’s worked with recently, the latest information he’d managed to get his hands on. Maybe the addresses of every other dealer with a similar business model. That’d be a place to start.”

If you find out why they took him, would that help you find out where they took him?”

Maybe,” I said slowly. “It’s a better chance than we’d have otherwise.”

Max nodded; again, the gesture seemed more for her own benefit than anyone else’s. “Most of what we had was on the boat, but you can have anything else.”

Just like that?”

Max swallowed a nervous lump. “Just like that. I don’t mind working with someone I don’t like if it means saving him.”

There were a few things to unpack there. One: the relationship between Max and the Texan went back further than I’d suspected. Two: Max really didn’t like me; my intuition hadn’t been off all these years. Three: ‘work with someone?’

We couldn’t really afford the side trip right now. There was no telling how long it would take to track down the Texan, orchestrate, and execute a plan to rescue him from his captors’ clutches. Even if everything went perfectly and quickly, there was no guarantee that we’d make it in time to find him still alive.

Still, I also wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I left and allowed Max to walk into a situation she lacked the skills to deal with. I’d been working with Devlin for years, far closer to the meat and gristle of the underworld than any other Community members, and even I could just barely handle the adrenaline. If someone with my relative experience was in danger of cracking from the pressure, I couldn’t imagine that Max would do much better when things got dangerous.

I decided to try and talk her out of it. “Max, you don’t have any idea what you’d be up against. People like these play for keeps.”

Her eyes flickered past me for an instant, focused briefly on the building, and then locked back onto mine. “Is this what you’ve been doing? What kept you away from the Community these last few months?”

I picked an answer that wouldn’t necessarily reveal anything too critical. “Not like this, no. But, generally speaking? Yeah.”

If you can do it,” Max said, “I know I can, too. You aren’t better than me.”

In her area of expertise, she was right. The code she used to protect her hacks from being traced were miles above anything I could reliably produce. But she was still thinking of this as intellectual pissing match, instead of the life or death struggle that it was, and I couldn’t think of any way to express that point to her without blowing aspects of my cover that I preferred to keep intact.

You can’t hack a bullet,” I said in a soft, intense voice.

Max took that sentence as a rebuke and fell silent, contemplating what she might be able to say next.

While she did that, I turned and found Mila hovering nearby, cloaked in shadow. She stepped forward when my gaze fell on her. “We shouldn’t stay here,” she said.

Do you think that whoever did this is coming back?”

Mila shook her head. “There are visible tracks inside. Whatever the Texan brought here, the attackers took all of it with them. If I had to guess, I’d say that they’re probably going to be busy with that.”

I wanted to get away from the scene of so many murders more than almost anything, but I suppressed my panic instinct and tried to think rationally. “Why the rush?”

Just because we aren’t likely to get ambushed,” Mila said, “that doesn’t mean we’re completely out of harm’s way. Someone could have planted a bomb, for instance.”

If they were going to do that, wouldn’t it already have triggered?” I asked.

Mila raised an eyebrow.

We waylaid Max on the interstate. Without that, she would’ve made it here earlier.” I paused, working my way through a sudden idea. “Can you, um, tell how long ago this happened?”

Not precisely,” Mila said. “The blood’s already dried out, but rigor mortis hasn’t set in. Sometime in the last hour or two.”

I frowned. If she was right, it meant the Mouse probably wasn’t involved. Our encounter with Max and her fleet of automated trucks hadn’t eaten up hours of time. The attack would’ve taken place before her arrival, whether we’d intervened or not. As far as I knew, he wasn’t interested in anything other than the systematic dismantling of the Community. An attack on the Texan didn’t fit with that.

And the attackers had been targeting the Texan. Or, possibly, that they’d been targeting some information that only he knew.

I raised my voice slightly. “Max? You were still working at the Speakeasy, even though you knew the Mouse was a threat. When did you decide to get out of town?”

When you started asking about the Community,” Max said. “We didn’t know who you were, so we thought that…”

The thought practically finished itself. Even though I hadn’t specifically mentioned the Community, Max had been skittish enough to bolt whenever anyone came asking about hackers. It was likely the best tactic for a hacker who relied on anonymity and elusiveness to avoid confrontation. But, she should have been across state lines in less than an hour. From there, Max could have purchased a ticket to anywhere in the world, under one of her countless aliases.

Something else also didn’t make sense. Why had the Texan pulled up stakes, too? My questions hadn’t put him in any additional danger. In fact, he’d practically instigated the meeting at the Speakeasy, days before we’d already planned to speak with each other. The only reason that he might have fled town was…

Mila and I reached the same thought at the exact same time, judging from the sharp hiss that came from her. One of her hands clenched into a tight fist and stayed that way for several seconds before, reluctantly, opening again.

Is it possible?” I asked her. “I mean, could they have done something like this?”

It isn’t their style,” Mila said.

You’re sure about that?”

She hesitated. Then, realizing that the hesitation was answer enough, she shrugged. “I don’t know anymore. Maybe, but probably not.”

There were a finite number of threats in the area. Of those threats, an even smaller subset could conceivably be in Dallas and able to launch an operation on short notice. I mentally checked them off, one at a time.

The Magi could pull it off, but the same thing that made them so terrifying also ruled them out as suspects: if they had any suspicions about my dual identity as Irene and as Sarah, they would have just bombed our hotel and been done with it. They had too much power and, thus far, no real compunctions about using it in public, flashy spectacles to prove a point. We were still drawing breath; Max was still alive; and no effort had been made to conceal that they’d kidnapped the Texan, instead of outright killing him. If the Magi had been involved, they were acting out of character.

There were also the local threats and any of the out-of-towners who seemed to follow in my team’s wake like a school of pilot fish. The locals must have reached some sort of equilibrium with the Texan, considering how he openly walked around town and hadn’t bothered taking even the most basic security precautions. We obviously hadn’t done anything and Barrett had been with us.

That left only one force capable of succeeding at this sort of bloody ambush who couldn’t be accounted for and were, as of that exact moment, operating under their own initiative: the Twins. I didn’t share Mila’s faith in their sense of honor. Like they’d said, it was possible that they’d decided to kill all of the dock workers with the greatest and purest nobility a murderer could possess. That probably wouldn’t bother them too much.

Why would they do it?” I asked Mila. “Just hypothetically.”

Just because I’ve worked alongside them,” Mila said, “that doesn’t mean I understand them.  Akumi can be a little quick to use violence, sure, but Kira is normally capable of keeping her…not quite under control, but reined in.”

It was difficult to imagine someone that even Mila would consider too violent.

They would have needed a motive,” she continued.  “No matter what, they wouldn’t just go on a rampage without a reason.”

And they told you that they were going to keep their heads down, to avoid attention and not risk bringing anything crashing down on their heads.”  I shut my eyes briefly, thinking through the possible implications.  “Can you think of anything that would motivate them to become this active, when they were concerned enough to come to you for help a few days ago?”

They could have been hired,” Michel said quietly. He was still standing behind Max, baton clenched painfully in one fist.

I hadn’t even considered that. My God.  The Twins were unemployed, so I’d started thinking of them as a rogue force.  But, like Mila, they accepted contracts.  Anyone could have noticed that they were no longer working for their Yakuza boss and contrived a way to purchase their services.  We probably could have done something similar, if I’d been willing to bring even more unaffiliated people into our war against the Magi.

But the Mouse…the Mouse had already shown a proclivity towards hiring outside assistance.  He’d sent goons to grab me, back in Atlanta.  What if he’d decided to work with a higher class of muscle?  Two of our enemies – or, more accurately, one of our enemies and his hired hands – working together might explain some of the inconsistencies. It still didn’t explain why he might have targeted the Texan, though.

What could he have offered them?”  I asked.

Answers,” Mila said.   “That’s what they’re after.”

Was your boss working on anything?” I asked Max.  “Did he come into any new information lately that might have been dangerous to hold onto?”

Things have been going on overseas,” Max said.  “Transactions that don’t make sense, power plays that don’t seem to leave any winners behind.  My employer had been trying to figure out the pattern.”

The last piece of the puzzle fell into place and I suddenly understood why the Mouse, the Twins, and the Magi all might have suddenly found themselves very interested in the Texan and in what he knew.

How close was he to figuring something out?” I asked Max.

How should I know?  He didn’t share everything with me.”

There was an implication, then, that he’d shared some things with her.  My questions on that front increased, but I shelved them for the moment.  “So,” I said.  “You’re telling us that your boss had all of that intelligence here, prepped for transport?  And that whoever killed his men and kidnapped him might have gotten away with all of it?”

Max responded with a weak shrug.  

Akumi and Kira didn’t strike me as people who dealt well with being out of the loop.  Between the Texan, the Community, the Magi, and the Lady, there were a lot of players on the field, with a lot of individual moving pieces.  If they wanted to play, or even if they just wanted to remove themselves from the game, they needed information.  Acquiring that information through violence was probably a viable option, in their eyes.

I still don’t buy it,” Mila said.  “This doesn’t feel like them.”

But it’s possible?”

It’s possible,” she admitted.

You seemed pretty confident that you could take them on,” I said.  “I’m not trying to insult you or anything, but…was that just bravado?”

Mila seemed unsure of herself.  “In a straight fight?  Without any other handicaps to deal with?  Maybe.”

You could beat them?”  I asked.  “Both of them?”

Mila shook her head.  “Beat them?  I could maybe buy the rest of you enough time to get away, at best.  They’re as good as I am, probably better, and there’s two of them.”

Why would that matter?” Max asked.  “You wanted to find the other Community members; that doesn’t have anything to do…with…”

She trailed off.  Fear and horror had been working overtime to limit her ability to think clearly, but the mind of a world-class hacker was beginning to break through that haze. With the clues we’d given her, Max had finally begun to piece together the full picture.

It’s connected?”  Max asked.  Before I could respond, she held up a hand and cut me off.  “It’s connected.  The Mouse…all of the strange things happening in the underworld…do you think he’s been involved in all of this?”

I’m not going to rule it out,” I hedged.  Better to be technically honest than to outright lie.  “If he is, that means you’d be dipping your toe into some dangerous waters.”

Max took a deep, steadying breath.  She forced herself to look into the abandoned building, at its floor littered with bodies.  “You really think that he’s still alive?”

The only reason anyone would have to do something like this would be to get something,” I said.  “If they didn’t get what they wanted right here, then they’d need to keep your employer in one piece.”

I left the rest of that sentence – “until he gives them what they want” – unsaid.

Then I’ll help,” Max said.  “I owe him that much.”

It would probably be better if you let us take this on,” Michel said. “It could be…difficult for you.”

Max shot him a glare of surprising intensity and he lapsed back into silence. Then she turned to me. “Listen. You wanted my help dealing with the Mouse. This is the Mouse. Either I go with you, or I do this without you.”

Mila and I exchanged a look. If Max effectively committed suicide, we would lose one of the three people capable of helping me protect my identity and defeating the Mouse. Or, even worse, she might be captured and forced to assist the Magi in their war against me, my tema, and the elusive Lady.  

After an eternity, Mila shrugged one shoulder and sighed.  “Fine,” she said.  “We should call someone to…take care of this.”

Michel took that as his cue. He stepped slightly away from Max, retrieved a phone from his pocket, and dialed 911. I wasn’t worried about anyone tracking the phone. We’d be leaving it at the scene of this crime when we left.

Did you know these people?” I asked Max.

She shook her head.  “He might have, but I doubt it.  Most of the people he hired for these sorts of things were spur of the moment.”

Families?”

I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  He didn’t like to involve people with families in anything that dealt with the underworld.”

There was that, at least.  It didn’t do anything to quell the yawning pit of disgust in my stomach, but at least it stopped that pit from growing larger.

Can anyone identify those trucks, based on the tires?” I asked.

No,” she said.  “This isn’t a model of car that even exists on the road.  Why?”

She was so sure.  I missed that feeling.  Close calls and near misses over the last six months had drilled that straight out of me.  Just because something should be impossible hardly ever meant that it actually was.

We need to get them somewhere safe,” I said.  “Unload everything.  Then, take those trucks and drive them away.  Far away.  We can’t have anything tying us to any of this.

And then what?”

I sighed.  There wasn’t time for a diversion yet, whether he’d known it or not, the Mouse had neatly placed one directly in my path. 

Then we find your boss,” I said.

Chapter 93

The trucks carried us onward in silence, which suited me just fine. I needed time to decompress and come down from the adrenaline tsunami I’d been riding since first sighting Max’s method of transportation. At first, my hands trembled, so I shoved them in my pockets to keep them out of sight. A few minutes after that, my stomach began spinning and looping back on itself. I clamped my mouth shut and counted backwards from thirty; the nausea lessened before I reached single digits, even if it didn’t go entirely away. A persistent blackness threatened to press in around the edges of my vision and, for some reason, my heartbeat refused to settle into a sedate, steady rhythm.

I’d felt sick after the last few operations I’d participated in, but nothing that compared to the general malaise settling over me like a heavy blanket. From my perch atop a pallet, I slumped against the wall of the truck and tried to focus my thoughts on the vibrations; that slump gradually became an undignified sprawl. At least my head stopped spinning while I was supine.

You get used to it,” Barrett said, from where just out of sight. I couldn’t be bothered to lift my head, in order to find out exactly where he was standing.

Get used to what?”

The withdrawal,” he answered.

I don’t do anything like that,” I said. Which was true, as long as I was willing to ignore any experiments I’d undertaken after breaking with Devlin. I didn’t do anything anymore, at least, which is what mattered.

It’s not something you take,” Barrett said. He moved past the edges of my field of vision and settled into a spot on a nearby pallet. “You were pushing yourself pretty hard to force this hunk of metal to pull over. I’d bet you’re coming down from all that adrenaline right now, aren’t you?”

I didn’t say anything. Devlin never seemed to need recovery time after his death-defying stunts. While I recognized that he and I were vastly different people, that knowledge did nothing to stop my temporary pique from muting me.

Barrett waited an appropriate amount of time before continuing. “You should probably get something to drink. Maybe even some food. I don’t know how bad you’re suffering from it, but it certainly looks bad.”

What about you?” I asked. “Why aren’t you suffering?”

He shrugged. “I wasn’t involved in the really dangerous stuff. You made sure of that. Besides, I scale buildings for a living. My adrenal glands and I are old friends.”

I grumbled something unintelligible, even to myself, and closed my eyes.  The unsteady swaying in my stomach seemed to increase as the pounding headache lessened, and I considered it a fair enough trade for the moment.  I could still feel Barrett’s presence, though: unmoving and unseen, on a nearby pallet.  After a minute of silence, I heaved a deliberately dramatic sigh.

I don’t mean to be rude,” I lied, “but why are you still here?”

Well,” he said, “when you decided we were all going for a ride, you made it impossible for me to check the cargo of the other two shipping trucks.  I only came along on this crazy trip because you promised me a chance at getting the information I’m after.”

Promise’ was drawing it a little heavy.  At best, I’d told him that there’d be a solid chance at getting his hands on what he was after.  If that information wasn’t contained within the Texan’s considerable supply, that would be unlucky for Barrett, not us. I’d be able to sleep fine at night, secure in the knowledge that I hadn’t knowingly suckered him into a bad deal.

So, when we park, you’ll…?”

Check through the other two trailers for anything on my former partner,” Barrett said.  “If I find what I’m after, great.  If not, then we’ll unfortunately have to go our separate ways, I guess.”

Unfortunately?”  I cracked my eye open a sliver and turned so that I could make out Barrett’s general shape about a yard away.  “You guess?”

Well,” Barrett said, exaggerating the syllable and stretching out his arms in a magnanimous gesture.  “There really isn’t any reason that we have to part ways, is there?  This was the job you and your team came to Texas for, wasn’t it?”

Sure.”  It was easier to let him draw his conclusions than to outright tell a lie.  I didn’t want to pique Barrett’s curiosity about our real reasons for visiting the Texan’s territory.

The blurry shape of Barrett’s body leaned back, probably on his elbows, and rolled his shoulders.  “You’ve got some serious style,” he said.  “I wouldn’t have expected that from someone of your, uh…background.”

I arched an eyebrow.  He wouldn’t be able to see it with our respective positions, but it made me feel good anyway.  “Your point being?”

Why don’t you come work with me?” Barrett asked.

I’ve already got a team,” I said, allowing my barely slitted eye to close again.  “You’ve met them.”

People change teams all the time,” Barrett said.  He paused, considered the possible innuendo in his previous statement, and decided to let it stand with a barely audible chuckle to himself.  “Just because you’re working with them now doesn’t mean you’ll be working with them forever.”

My mind skipped a beat at that.  Not because I was considering working with Barrett over my teammates, but because of the implication inherent in his argument.  I’d left the underworld once before.  I’d only returned because of the threat Asher represented to Devlin and me; I’d only stayed in the game because we’d allowed the Lady to maneuver us into a position where playing along was our only real option.  When all this was finished – the Mouse beaten, the Magi named and handed over to whatever hells the Lady had in mind for them – what would I do then?  Go back to my stock market programs and my lovely, if unchanging, apartment?  Start working with the family business in a more serious, focused capacity? 

Continue stealing with Devlin, Mila, and Michel?

It was easy to distract myself with other, more pressing matters when we were on the job.  There simply wasn’t time for introspection when furiously trying to bypass a firewall before Devlin tripped an alarm or while modifying an existing identity to suit whatever personality Michel needed to use during infiltration.  It was the quiet moments like these when my thoughts caught up with me.  Without meaning to, Barrett had accidentally brought a question I’d been actively trying to avoid.  What would happen to our team when we weren’t being forced together by circumstance?

It’s not something I’m worried about right now,” I said, trying to stave off those thoughts just a little longer.

Well, you’ve got to think about it eventually,” Barrett said.

I wanted to throw something at him, but there wasn’t anything in reach.  If I needed someone to tell me to do the emotionally healthy thing, I could just call my doctor.

I’m not thinking about it now,” I said, adding a little bit of edge to my words.  Barrett either understood or thought he’d made his point; either way, he fell silent.  We rode the rest of the way to our destination like that.

When the trucks began to slow, I roused myself from a partial stupor and made my way over to where Max was working.  She was sitting at an angle, so that she was able to watch the monitor, with its camera feeds and lines of code, while ensuring that no one could sneak up on her.

Yes?” Max asked, before I could say anything.

We’re here already?”

She shook her head.  “It’s more like a…waypoint.”

So you’re going somewhere else after here.”  I didn’t phrase it as a question.

Of course,” Max said.  “If the rest of us are being targeted, I want to get as much space between you and me as possible.  An ocean or two, ideally.”

I counted to ten in my head before responding.  I wanted to plead with her to stay and fight, instead of running and hiding, but that wouldn’t do any good.  Max had always been stubborn and pigheaded to a fault.  She’d already made up her mind about the best plan of action and nothing I said or did was going to change that.  All I’d accomplish is frustrating myself and her, which might bleed over into irritating the Texan.

Does your employer know you’re going to meet him here?”

Max made a face at the word ‘employer.’  It smoothed back into an expression of casual disdain almost instantly, before I had an opportunity to ponder what that grimace might mean.  “This was always the plan,” she said.  “Until you four decided to run me off the road, we’d always intended to abandon the trucks here.”

I could extrapolate from there.  From the warehouse where Mila had found her, Max would have used the automated trucks to take a route that no one except for her and the Texan knew.  While the men loading the servers, notebooks, ledgers, photographs, and other assorted items would have an idea what the trucks carried, they wouldn’t know where the trucks were going.  I assumed there was a similar group of men located at this way station.  They would unload the goods, but remain unaware of where anything had come from.

Classic double blind?” I asked her.

Max shrugged.  “It’s a classic for a reason.”

She obviously didn’t see the flaws. In the first few months of my time with Devlin, I probably wouldn’t have noticed them either. Max had made several assumptions and thoe assumptions had not, apparently, been supported by reality. No matter how thoroughly she had plotted out the stages of her egress, there would inevitably be a witness or twelve. With sufficient ground-level research, it would be possible to piece together her journey. It might take a motivated party weeks or even months to do it, but it was almost impossible to disappear without assistance from someone with powerful connections. We managed to stay under the radar because we hit fast, saw to it that no one who could positively identify us was left in any shape to do so, and enjoyed the full protection of the Lady. The Texan was connected, sure, but all of the friends in the world wouldn’t do much to protect a sloppy exit strategy.

It told me something about her and about the Texan: they didn’t work much in the field. Or, more accurately, they weren’t used to doing the type of work that more conventional thieves were accustomed to. He dealt with the underworld, almost certainly knew the ins and outs of various organizations and cabals. She was a wizard when it came to subverting network security and pillaging secret databases for their secrets. But neither of them knew much about the actual craft of thievery or of covering their trails.

I probably could’ve guessed that about the Texan. He practically made a show out of his every appearance and took no discernible steps to conceal his identity. Even our moniker for him was one we’d simply chosen to use for its aesthetic value. With a minimum of effort, I was sure I could ferret out his real identity. I just had no interest in it. If someone was interested – say, someone with malicious intent – it wouldn’t be difficult at all to do catastrophic damage to the man, to his employees, and to his entire organization.

With that thought floating across the surface of my mind, the five of us exited through the back of the trailer. Our trip down the interstate had taken us to a dock on the banks of a wide, swiftly flowing river. At some point, we’d turned off of the main roads and found a well-traveled dirt road. Straining my eyes to pierce through the dark, moonless night, I was just barely able to make out a street lamp in the distance.

Max strode toward a wide, one story building that extended over the water. I exchanged a look with Mila and Michel before following after her. Barrett, for some reason, took several quick steps until he was walking beside our group.

I thought you were going to search those trucks,” I said to him.

If there’s an easier way of locating what I’m after,” Barrett replied, “I’d rather not waste my time.”

Does that mean you’ll be leaving us alone?” Mila asked. She put herself directly between Barrett and me, not even bothering to conceal the action.

Barrett gave her a thin lipped smile. “It would bring our business together to a conclusion faster, yes.”

Mila returned the not-quite smile with a flat expression of her own. “Then I’m all for it.”

Michel snorted. Then, realizing that he’d been audible, he attempted to cover that sound with a weak cough. Graciously, I decided not to comment.

As we drew closer to the building, a sense of unease began creeping up my spine. I knew that Max and the Texan would have arranged a skeleton crew to load and unload his goods, but there should still have been some sort of noise. If not the raucous voices of men that had grown tired of waiting, I should at least have heard shuffling feet or grumbles of displeasure. Instead of those sounds, all I heard was our own footsteps, our heavy breaths in the still air, and the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.

Are you sure he didn’t decide to cut his losses when you didn’t show up on time?” I asked Max.

He wouldn’t do that,” Max said. But she seemed unsure and somewhat distracted. Her thoughts weren’t with us, I realized; she was focusing her attention entirely on the building. She quickened her pace.

Mila touched my shoulder. “Get behind me,” she said.

Instantly, I did as she’d said. Michel did the same, although he positioned himself in front of me as well. Even if I hadn’t felt something like fear beginning to pierce through the fog of adrenaline withdrawal, I would have followed her instincts like the word of God.

With each step, that gnawing feeling intensified; the thundering boom of my heartbeat grew louder; and Max’s steps, already rushed to begin with, grew increasingly frantic. She reached the double doors to the building before us and, after a brief effort, threw one door open.

It was too dark inside for me to see much from behind Mila. I didn’t need to see, however, because Max’s sharp gasp was warning enough. She took a quavering step forward and started to take another, but stopped before her foot reached the ground. Then, she turned, staggered several feet away, and was violently sick against the outer wall of the building.

On impulse, I went to her. Mila said something to herself in Spanish. Then, to Michel, “Stay with her.”

Mila paused briefly at the building’s open door, shook her head, and then plunged inside. I put her out of my thoughts and focused on Max. The black-haired woman had fallen to her knees and seemed to be gathering the willpower necessary to be sick again and for much longer.

What happened?” I asked.

She opened her mouth to respond, but no words came out. Her jaw worked soundlessly while moisture began forming in the corners of her eyes.

Mila?” I called out. “Mila, what’s going on?”

It took her a second to emerge. When Mila did step out of the building, she wore a grave expression and some of the color had drained from her face. “Someone got here before us,” she said.

I left Max where she knelt and walked over to Mila. Before I reached her, the smell hit me like a fist. My nausea from the trailer returned, magnified by several orders, and I felt like I’d be joining Max by the building in short order. Instead, I managed to make it a few more steps, until I was in a position to see past Mila into the building.

Bodies. Bodies everywhere. No less than two dozen men, scattered inside like broken , discarded dolls. Bullet holes scarred the walls where I could see them and probably where I couldn’t. I’d only seen death once before, in person; the scale of the slaughter in front of me made that previous experience seem like nothing.

Someone had gotten here before us. We hadn’t been the only people interested in the Texan’s trove of information. We’d just been the slowest.

Chapter 92

At best, I’d hoped for a breadcrumb that might lead me to a member of the Community.  Instead, through sheer dumb luck, I’d stumbled upon Max herself. We’d rarely communicated outside of group conversations on the Community’s forums and, truth be told, I’d never particularly liked her.  That said, I’d never been able to deny that Max possessed a certain flair and an undeniable talent within her given skillset.  I would have preferred to meet with Frizzle or Gates first, but beggars could hardly be choosers.

Max,” I said, “we need to talk.”

I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she replied instantly.  It wasn’t a believable lie and I don’t think she intended for it to be.  The words came out automatically, like a well-trained reflex. 

I didn’t…look, this isn’t how I’d planned to meet with you, but it is what it is.  There’s more going on than you know about.”  I looked at the surrounding treasure trove of information.  “And it looks like you know an awful lot.”

Whatever you’re after, you’re not going to get it from me,” Max said.  “If you think you’re going to get away with this, you’re sorely mistaken.”

Mila took a half step forward, increasing the pressure on Max’s arm.  “Are you sure about that?”

I almost said Mila’s name, but managed to stop myself just before I did so.  In the past, Mila had intimated that she wasn’t using her real name anyway.  While I didn’t know what her parents had named her, I did know that she’d chosen her current moniker for its meaning.  She might be willing to give it up, should circumstances call for it, but I didn’t want to put her in a position where she had to make that choice.

Instead, I held up a hand and hoped that my body language conveyed a message.  Mila glanced at my hand, sighed, and relented without a word of complaint.  By that simple action, she managed to express her displeasure with my decision in a way that wouldn’t undermine me.  As far as Max was concerned, it would look like I was in a position of authority within the crew, as opposed to a partnership or cooperative agreement.  It might be useful to hold onto that presumption.

We don’t want to hurt you,” I said to Max.  “But you do need to take us seriously.”

Or what?” Max countered.  “If you aren’t going to hurt me, why would I bother listening to anything you’ve got to say?  Steal whatever you came to steal and run away; just know that, whatever you get away with, you won’t have it for very long.”

If you were going to hurt us,” I said, “you wouldn’t have directed your drivers to avoid hitting us while we were chasing you down.  So we’re at kind of an impasse here, aren’t we?”

What about the drivers?” Max asked.  “You don’t know what they’re going to do.”  Her eyes flicked past me and onto the computer for an instant.  I only noticed the moment because I was looking directly at her.

A thought occurred to me.  We’d successfully forced Max to stop, but that didn’t explain the other two trucks.  They stood, unmoving and undisturbed, in the middle of the road.  Shouldn’t their drivers have done something to help Max?  And how had she conveyed the order to stop so quickly?  Surely, there would have been at least one driver unwilling to risk his haul.

I turned away from Max and walked back to the computer, ignoring the sound of complaint she made from behind me.  I knelt and examined the code in greater depth.  Most of what I saw was obfuscation, in one form or another: lines of coding that led nowhere, dead-ends, and recursive loopbacks that only called for their own results.  When I mentally stripped those away and focused on the actual meat of the program, I began to get a glimpse of its purpose.  The work wasn’t beyond my capabilities, so much as it focused on areas I’d never bothered to study in.  What I understood was quite impressive, though.  Impressive enough, in fact, that I suspected she must have spent months working on the framework before putting it into the field.

You were the driver, weren’t you?” I asked her when I returned.  I took a spot atop a pallet, so that I looked down on her while she tried not to struggle in Mila’s hold.  “For all three of the trucks, I mean.  Did you set up some kind of camera system to monitor everything?”

Max looked temporarily chagrined before she quickly recovered and assumed her best neutral expression.  I’d seen better poker faces.

No,” I said, “that wouldn’t make sense, either.  You couldn’t watch all of those cameras at the same time.  And, while I’m sure you could’ve written this by yourself, it would’ve been easier to repurpose existing code for your needs.  Is it the code from Tesla’s self-driving cars?  UPS’s?  Amazon?”

She gave me a little bit of a reaction on that last one.

Amazon, then?”  I whistled.  “I know they’ve been working on driverless cars, but not how far along they were.  So you got this from one of their servers and tasked it to transport you to…wherever you were headed, hoping you could get there without having to tell anybody else what your destination was?  Is that about right?”

Still, no verbal response.  Non-verbally, however, she couldn’t have been more obvious. I was learning more from Devlin than I’d realized, apparently.

I don’t think there are any other drivers,” I said to her.  “And I think we both know that you’re not in a position to do a lot of bargaining here.”

You talk a lot,” Max said suddenly.  “And you really shouldn’t.  Can you guess what else I know?”

I started to respond, realized that she wasn’t finished, and lapsed into expectant silence.

I know that you sound awfully familiar,” Max said.  “I didn’t get it at first.  Too many people in the Speakeasy, so many different accents.  But the way you’re talking, the way she’s standing…you were there a few nights ago.  You’re the Ford girl, aren’t you?”

My expectant silence turned to horror in an eyeblink.  Thankfully, with my helmet on and the visor down, Max wouldn’t be able to see my facial expression. 

You just went stiff,” Max pointed out.  “Guess that means I’m not off the mark.  I’m surprised you’re so involved in this sort of business.  Can’t imagine the family would appreciate hearing about this on the evening news.”

I tried to relax, but actively thinking about my posture only made me more uncomfortable. 

And if you’re the Ford girl, that would make your attack dog here Emilia Durante.  Unless you changed your name again?”  Max directed that question up at Mila, as if the latter woman wasn’t in a position to break an arm.

Mila made an inscrutable sound in her throat.  “If you know so much about me,” she said, “maybe you should consider what I’m likely to do if you antagonize me.”

Max forced out a dry laugh.  “You’re under contract, aren’t you?  That’s the only reason you would’ve stopped when she told you to.  If you were going to hurt me, you’d already be doing it.  Right now, you’re just trying to keep me from running away and raising an alarm.”

I realized that there were downsides to dealing with a perpetually suspicious person.  In the underworld, paranoia was a learned survival trait and Max hadn’t gained her skills or notoriety without being intelligent and circumspect.  As much as I could read her, she would likely be able to read me.

Why don’t we all just go our separate ways?”  Max suggested. Barely concealed dishonesty practically dripped from the offer.  “No harm, no foul.  I keep my secrets and you keep yours.”

That’s not an option,” I said.  “We need your help.”

And I’m not giving it to you,” Max replied.  “What’re you going to do about it?”

I took a deep breath, then another.  Max had always been naturally disagreeable, even when it worked against her own best interests.  Currently, she was using a variation of a trick I’d seen Devlin attempt on occasion: by applying constant, subtle pressure, she forced the conversation to play out on her terms.  When Devlin did it, he was usually stalling for time so that one of us could steal a key card, or hack into a network, or position a getaway car.  Whatever Max ultimately wanted to get out of this conversation, she was hoping that we’d exchange words long enough that she’d get an opportunity.

I didn’t have the time to mince words with her, though, so I pulled off my helmet.  Mila made a sound, as if she were going to protest my decision.  I ignored that and, when the helmet was entirely gone, knelt down so that I was eye to eye with Max.  That position had the added benefit of ensuring that Barrett couldn’t overhear me or read my lips from where he was near the other end of the trailer.

Max,” I said, “if there was any other way to get this done without your help, I’d be happy to leave you alone.  But I can’t find Frizzle or Gates and I really can’t afford to spend a few months running down false leads until one of them decides to present themselves.  Nobody’s better at spotting that sort of thing than you so, one way or another, you are going to help.”

Max’s eyes grew wide again, and they stayed that way for a few long seconds.  “You’re…you’re…”

I cut her off before she could say my digital name out loud.  “I’m an interested party,” I said.  “Leave it at that.”

But you…you said that…”  The palpable arrogance and surety had temporarily evaporated, leaving only a confused woman in an uncomfortable position.  Max closed her mouth and, after a ten count, spoke again in a steadier voice.  “Did you mean what you said?  The…the last time we talked?”

It’s true,” I said.  “The Mouse and Caelum are the same person.  Always have been, unless I’m mistaken.”

And the others?” Max pressed.  “Everyone who’s been outed in the past couple of months?”

It was him.”

How do you know?”

On the fly, I decided to keep that information to myself.  She already know my digital identity and my real name.  Max didn’t need to know about the timer or about how my mistake had endangered my team and the remaining members of the Community.

Luck,” I said.  “When I was trying to find him, he made a mistake.  I caught on and now he’s after me, specifically.”

Caelum,” Max whispered to herself.  “He was real.  I just thought…it didn’t even seem possible.  One person, doing all of that damage?”

A part of me found it ludicrously amusing that, for a conspiracy theorist, Max seemed reluctant to accept objective reality.  Of course the Mouse was capable of reeking havoc within a small group like the Community.  By nature, hackers tended to be insular and isolated.  Working methodically, a single talented actor could demolish an organization staffed with unconnected individuals.  Hell, my team and I were living examples of how effective that strategy was against a force that would be vastly superior, if every member of that force could be brought to bear on a single target.

It’s real,” I said.  “It’s happening.  And I need your help to stop him.”

Stop him?”  Max tried to stand up, only to wince as Mila applied pressure to her arm.  I gestured for Mila to release her, which she did after only an instant of silent disapproval.  “You want to stop him?”

He’s just one guy,” I said.  “Most of what he accomplished only worked because we didn’t know where the attacks were coming from.  Now that he’s exposed, if the rest of us can work together, we can shut him down.”

Max shook her head.  “People are dying,” she said.  “And you want to step into that fight?”

I blinked.  “Dying?  What?”

ZhuLi and CW went dark, but they both worked somewhere in China.  I saw intelligence that hinted some local gangsters suddenly acquired vastly improved networking skills…right before a big government crackdown that wiped out at least two cells of the Triad in Hong Kong.  SeminOLÉ managed to put out a warning…or, at least the beginning of a warning.”

What happened to him?” I asked, not wanting to know the answer but unable to live with the uncertainty.

If the reports I gathered were correct?”  A look of profound disgust passed over her face.  “They found an eighteen year old boy in the Everglades about a week later, mouth filled with RAM.”

It was easy to forget that I wasn’t the only one with skin in the game.  Sure, I was on the front lines of the battle against the Magi, and that particular cabal had shown no scruples or discrimination in the damage they were willing to cause.  But I also benefited from a highly functional team of professionals.  Most hackers didn’t bother hiring bodyguards of Mila’s caliber and didn’t work side by side with talented thieves and getaway drivers.  And very few members of the Community made their names attacking nominally upstanding charity organizations. 

A CEO would launch an investigation, rail against the criminal culture in the papers, and generally make a fuss after they’d been robbed.  But, after the attention died down, they were likely to quietly accept an insurance pay out and get back to business as usual.  I hadn’t been considering that when I’d marked those corrupt individuals as my preferred targets, but it was undeniably helpful in the long run.

The other Community members lived their lives nearer to the edge.  These were boys and girls who’d learned their skills by necessity, instead of boredom.  They stole from drug dealers and gangster organizations to survive.  When those hackers were exposed to the people they’d robbed, the consequences would be far more dire and lethal.

I should have known as much.  I did know as much, but I’d been deliberately not thinking about it. 

What are you saying?” I asked Max.  “That we should just let him get away with all the people he’s hurt or killed?”

I’m saying that he’s already gotten away with it,” Max said.  “Before you came traipsing back into the forums, there were dozens of us.  All of us tried to slow him down, to distract him…nothing worked.  He’s just better than us.  He always was.  If you’re right about Caelum actually being the Mouse, then it’s even worse than I thought.  He knows us.  Knows what we’d do, how we’d react.”

So we should just cut ties and run?”

What do you think I’m doing?”

As much as I wanted to contradict that logic, I couldn’t find any apparent flaw.  The Mouse had our collective and individual numbers.  After my ransomware expired, he’d be able to access all of my accounts and false identities.  Through them, he’d find the IP information I’d collected from the other Community members back in Atlanta.  He’d know about every name Devlin, Mila, Michel, and I had used or had planned to use in the future.  That would be the entire ballgame, in one fell swoop.

I’m not running,” I said.  The surety in my voice surprised me.  “He’s got to be stopped.”

And you think you’re going to be the one to do it?”

If you won’t?  Then, yes.  We’ll figure out a way.”

Max shook her head.  “You’ll get yourself killed.”

If I run, I’ll probably get killed anyway,” I said.  “At least this way, I have a chance to go down fighting.”

Max’s eyes bored into mine for several tense, uncomfortable seconds.  Finally, she sighed and pushed herself to a standing position.  “Move,” she said.

Why?”

I don’t think you’re going to do it,” Max said.  “I think he’ll take you apart as soon as you show up on his radar.  But…but I can pass along some information to you.  For whatever that’s worth.”

Information?  On what?”

I keep files,” Max said.  “On everyone.  You know that.  I was about this close to figuring out who you were, as a matter of fact.”

I doubted that, but decided to keep my mouth shut.

Max continued.  “Maybe you can look at it and figure out where Frizzle and Gates are.  I never could, but I wasn’t trying very hard to find out where they’re located, either.”

It wasn’t what I’d wanted.  Max’s talents would be incredibly useful in the inevitable confrontation with the Mouse.  I suspected that I’d need every remaining member of the Community working at their peak if I wanted any chance of success against the Mouse and his superior techniques.  But if this was all Max was willing to offer, it was what I’d have to accept.

I moved and she took her place at the computer.  With a series of decisive commands, she altered the code on the screen in a way that coaxed the three trucks back to life.

Have your goons load up those motorcycles,” Max said.  “Assuming you want to keep them, that is.”

Where are we going?”

Max sighed.  “My…employer,” she said.  “He’s going to be interested in whatever you can tell him about the Mouse.”

I didn’t even have to think about it.  We’d wanted her employer as an ally.  If this convoluted series of events led to a willing and enthusiastic partner in our war against the Mouse and the Magi, so much the better.  Besides, the Texan had somehow managed to corral and employ Max in her official capacity as a hacker.  Odds were high that I was going to be very interested in what he could tell me, as well.

Chapter 91

The last time someone had managed to get their hands on my equipment, we’d succeeded by virtue of Devlin’s self-sacrifice and creativity, along with a surprise that even we hadn’t expected.  I couldn’t count on any such luck this time.  If we weren’t merely going to slink back to the hotel in defeat, waiting until the Mouse came down on me like a guillotine, I’d have to find some way to get one of those trucks to stop.  And I had to do it without letting anyone else know what I was actually planning, lest the eavesdropper have an opportunity to prepare some kind of a defense.

Can you try from the other side?” I asked Mila.  While I spoke, I held one arm out and forward, into the range of her peripheral vision.  I frantically jabbed a finger at the road’s shoulder.  “Swing to the left and hit an axel from that angle?”

We just tried that,” Mila said slowly, confused by my conflicting messages.  “The next time we go around that way, he just –“

No, not the right side,” I cut in.  “The left.  Near the center of the road.  Could you do something like that?”

Mila took her eyes off of the road for a few heart stopping seconds, so that she could face her visor directly at me.  I tapped my free hand to one side of the helmet and shook my head.  Then I held up a finger over my mouth’s general location and pointed at the truck.

I don’t know how she understood anything from that terrible pantomime, but she nodded and returned her attention to the road in front of us.  “I can give that a try,” she said.

Try not to miss again?” Barrett suggested, as he pulled up next to us on the right.  “I’d prefer not to die from a chunk of asphalt.”

I’d prefer it if you weren’t talking so much,” Mila said, “but we’ve all got to make sacrifices.”

I snorted.  It was a ludicrous sound, lunatic in its brief ferocity.  The adrenaline was going to my head.  Had, in fact, been going to my head for a while.  I realized, belatedly, that I was smiling.  When had that started?

Get closer to the shoulder,” I said, “and Mila will try to make sure that any missed shots goes straight between the four of us.  Got it?”

I was gesturing as I spoke.  With only one hand, I couldn’t convey anything too complicated, and I wouldn’t have had the time to attempt anything complicated anyway.  I repeated the series of gestures I’d used for Mila’s benefit, adjusted so that the boys would know to stay far behind us and ready to pounce on whichever truck we managed to handicap.  They didn’t seem to understand my nonverbal cues as well as Mila had – though, in fairness to them, her instructions were exactly the sort of thing she would have chosen to do, orders or not – and it was critical that they knew the problems with our communications.  If they called out our deception, the eavesdropper would know that he or she had been blown and wouldn’t trust any other words she caught.  Most likely, he or she would just jam the frequencies all together and leave us to flail around without any way to talk.

Before I could attempt another round of charades, the three trucks shifted in their formation again.  From a steel wall, they gradually adjusted and decreased their speeds until they formed a sort of two dimensional pyramid: two trucks at the back forming a blockade with one truck – the vehicle that had, thus far, always remained in the center of the formations – leading the pack.

There was something to that.  If the Texan was a hands-on sort of person, it wasn’t unreasonable to suspect that he might be riding with his servers to their destination.  What better way to ensure that none of his men decided to take a peek at the goods, so to speak?

I opened my mouth to say…something…but it never came out.  The two blocking trucks abruptly slammed on their brakes.  A single thought wasn’t able to make its way from one side of my brain to the other before electric terror overrode everything else.  I couldn’t even get out a noise before we were within feet of the truck and closing faster than thought.

Mila acted with reflexes honed by years of combat and survival.  She wouldn’t have been able to stop the motorcycle in time.  Instead, she jerked the motorcycle’s handlebars to one side and threw her body weight toward the road.  When she went down, I went with her, and probably would’ve fallen entirely off of the motorcycle if she hadn’t put one hand over mine and held of both of those tight against her stomach.  We reached a forty-five…forty…thirty-five degree angle with the ground before Mila stuck out her foot and used it to keep us from dipping any further.

The turn was impossible.  Too little time and too little distance to whip the motorcycle in a completely different direction.  The physics simply wouldn’t allow for such an action…but Mila, apparently, wasn’t concerned with the opinions of physics.  At that carefully maintained angle, revving the engine of the motorcycle even higher, she managed to get us past the leftmost truck’s corner by a margin of inches.  Maybe even less than that.

I whooped in exhilaration.  The sound just made its way out of my body of its own accord, driven out with all the fear I’d been trying to swallow.  The smile on my face grew broader, manic and almost painful.  I didn’t care. 

Mila had to whip the bike in the other direction to balance us out, but without the impending threat of a fatal collision, she was able to do it more gracefully and farther from the ground. By the time we were upright again, Mila and I were riding alongside the blocking trucks, which had already started to accelerate again.

Are you okay?” Michel asked. There was undisguised panic in his voice, approaching frenzy. “What happened?”

Mila answered by issuing a blistering series of swear words and invectives, some of which I’d never even heard before.  Our eavesdropper would hear that and, therefore, know that we hadn’t been pancaked by the surprise attack, but that hardly mattered. Any hope of catching the trucks off guard had long since fallen by the wayside. A few seconds in either direction wasn’t going to provide any protection against the next, potentially fatal attack. If she wanted to curse, so be it.

A thought came to me.  It floated in on slow-moving current of crystalline clarity, so ill-advised and reckless that I could hear Devlin’s voice warning me away from it. It would never work, was founded on nothing more than a mad, fleeting idea that wasn’t supported by anything concrete. Yet, buoyed by the euphoria of my brush with death, I couldn’t ignore the possibility. A torrent of adrenaline swelled up within me and drowned out my better judgment.

Go around the blockers!” I shouted the order into the comms. “Michel, Barrett: stick to the sides of the road, where the trucks can’t get in your way!”

That wasn’t necessarily true. The trucks had driven straight off the road in order to throw off Mila’s aim; there was no real reason to think they wouldn’t attempt a similar technique again. Which was, of course, what I was hoping for.

As I spoke, I made an odd hooking gesture out to the side, where Mila could see it: forward, then sharply to the right and back again. It wasn’t hard to visualize the skeptical look that must have been on her face. After a moment, though, she nodded and opened up the throttle even more. The motorcycle responded with a loud, racking protest. Whatever we were going to do, the homebrew bikes weren’t going to withstand much more of this.

On a straight stretch of road, the trucks were capable of higher top speeds. The motorcycle, however, was far better at acceleration. Mila and I quickly overtook the trucks, then cut over to the right. Without any hesitation, Mila released the throttle and applied the brakes. I couldn’t help but glance behind me, as the blocking trucks sped toward us. The thin gap between the two trucks was a foot to one side. The massive engine of the rightmost eighteen wheeler roared toward us.

The fronts of the trucks were completely blank. Where the front windshield should have been, there was only a sheet of completely opaque metal with strange dots at each of the four corners.  As far as I could see, there was no way for the driver inside of the vehicle to see outside, at all.  How were they even driving?  It made no sense and the possibility that the drivers legitimately couldn’t see me only served to ratchet up the electric current of thrill running through my body.

The trucks split a second before they hit us, swinging out wide to the left and right, almost entirely off road. I breathed a sigh of relief at the realization that my idea hadn’t gotten Mila and I killed.

They’re in our way!” Michel said. That edge of hysteria hadn’t left his voice. If anything, it might have sharpened slightly at finding himself blocked.

I couldn’t explain what I’d discovered to them without giving it away to our eavesdropper, as well. But the trucks hadn’t been trying to kill us. If anything, they’d be attempting to stymie us in such a way that we would be more likely to give up than continue our pursuit. The first two times they’d moved in such a way as to thwart any nascent plans, they hadn’t followed that defense with any type of reprisal. The only time we’d actually be in serious danger had been when I’d attempted to mislead the eavesdropper. 

When the trucks had suddenly stopped, the eavesdropper must have thought we weren’t in harm’s way. The blocking tactic hadn’t been designed to hurt anyone. And this latest experiment all but proved it. The drivers wanted to crowd us out, to discourage us…but they didn’t seem to want to hurt us.

That meant we could play things a little riskier.

As if she’d been reading my mind, Mila pushed the motorcycle back into action. It rattled with a frightening intensity, stuttered and coughed out black clouds of smoke. But it kept going anyway. I only needed it to stay in one piece a little bit longer.

The lead truck, as I’d come to think of it, had slowed down. While we’d been testing out a theory and barely avoiding collisions, the lead truck could have widened the gap between itself and its pursuers with ease. Instead, that eighteen wheeler had stayed relatively close to its compatriots: a couple hundred feet, maybe, if even that much. When we drew close enough to it, I gave Mila another series of gestures: touched her arm, then my chest, then pointed at the door leading into the trailer.

Isolating a truck hadn’t worked and trying to force one off of the road had failed, as well. Mila glanced momentarily away from the road, down at her ankle. The gun was somewhere behind us, dropped during the wild hairpin turn from earlier. If she had another weapon, I didn’t see it and she didn’t seem inclined to reach for one.  Without a weapon of some sort, we wouldn’t be able to force the truck to slow down or stop, which would make boarding it damn near impossible.

Watch out!” I yelled into the comms, exhilaration mingling with terror as it bled into my words. “You can’t outrun them!”

The drivers weren’t able to see the road.  Or, if they could, they were using some method that I couldn’t yet understand.  If I was right, then they wouldn’t be able to tell whether or not my panic was genuine.  Without the ability to see outside of their truck, they also couldn’t know if the danger was to their left, their right, behind them, or even somehow ahead.  Thus far, they had gone out of their way to avoid hurting us…at least, as much as they were capable of with me actively feeding them misdirection.  If they wanted to continue that streak, there was only one thing they could possibly do.

I was right. The truck in front of us slammed on its brakes with a sound like harpies trapped in a sack. That sound pierced straight through my helmet and drilled into my skull from the lead truck and the two blockers behind me, threatening to erase the very concept of thought with every passing second. I held onto Mila from reflex, rather than any conscious desire, as she carefully and cautiously applied our own brakes.

She reached out and grabbed a strap dangling from the back of the truck, then used it as an anchor to pull us closer to the back of the lead vehicle. When we were close enough to touch the metal of the truck, Mila used a combination of her knees and the hand still on the motorcycle’s handlebars to guide us closer to center. There, she quickly unlatched the door and heaved upwards with what little strength she could muster from that position. It only took a few seconds, yet even that was almost too long. As the door creaked slowly open, the lead truck began picking up speed again.

The motorcycle couldn’t take anymore, and it made that fact plain with a loud snap, followed by a flood of some liquid against my calves. When it began seeping through my jeans, I realized what it was: oil. A hose must have finally endured too much.

The door to the trailer was open. There were no lights switched on inside the container, so I couldn’t see who or what waited for us inside. Whoever or whatever is, though, they weren’t firing. That was a start, at least. Regardless, there was only one real play at this point. We’d have to deal with whatever new obstacle hid within the darkness of the trailer, one way or another. Mila and I did the only thing possible in perfect synchronization, like we’d planned and practiced the maneuver over months. She released the motorcycle entirely and wrapped her free arm around my waist. I clung to her like a drowning man, sick and excited in equal measure, dreading what would come next.

When the bike finally died – shuddering, choking, grinding – it died in a spectacular display of light and sound. There was no explosion, per se; the motorcycle wasn’t large enough, nor did it contain enough flammable liquid, for anything as severe as that. It caught on fire instead. The flames traced along the exposed lines of metalwork and engine, taking hold wherever possible, and filling in the spaces with their hideous, glowing light.

Before either of us could be burned by the fire, Mila pulled on the strap with every muscle in her body. It was just enough for her to pull us up and off of the motorcycle, briefly through the air for a nauseating blink of an eye, and into the trailer of the lead eighteen wheeler. The upper half of my body smacked against the cold metal floor, hard enough to force the breath from my lungs. My legs dangled out into open air.

I yanked those in as soon as my thoughts returned to anything resembling functionality. Mila was laying on her back, sucking in great gasps of air and…was she laughing?

The painful smile on my face grew even wider and I felt my own diaphragm expand and contract uncontrollably. Was I laughing?

Sarah? Mila?” Michel’s voice floated on the surface of my delirious chuckles. I had to force myself to pay attention. “Are you okay? What is happening?”

We’re fine,” Mila said. “Crazy, but fine.”

Where are you?”

On the lead truck,” I said. Then, raising my voice as if that was at all necessary, I added, “Whoever you are, you can tell your men to stop. If they were going to shoot us, they would have done it by now.”

Nothing happened.

I allowed the smile to drain off of my face as I returned to my feet. “You didn’t want to hurt anyone. We don’t want to hurt anyone, either. Have the trucks stop, we’ll take what we’re after, and everyone can go on their merry way.”

For several seconds, it seemed as though the eavesdropper wasn’t going to give that order. Eventually, though, I felt the truck slowing down. Michel and Barrett approached cautiously on their motorcycles, flanking the two blocking trucks, until all of the trucks stopped, at the same time. They parked their bikes on the side of the road and started to climb up into the trailer with Mila and I.

Three trucks, instead of just one. I could hardly believe it. We’d been more successful than I would have thought possible. Of course, we couldn’t actually do anything with three trucks’ worth of information and servers, but our attack would have more credibility for its brazenness. Devlin would be proud; I certainly was.

Clearly, the Texan hadn’t opted to hire security for the interiors of his shipping trucks. I expected the drivers to abandon their vehicles or, barring that, to barricade themselves within their respective cabs until we finished. When a woman darted out from the deepest recesses of the trailer, head down to keep her face hidden, it was such an absurd turn of events that it caught me completely flat footed.

Mila caught the woman by her upper arm as she tried to pass, twisted and wrenched the limb up and back so that the attempted escape didn’t even reach the two men pulling themselves into the trailer. The woman struggled briefly against Mila’s grip; then, realizing that any further action was only going to result in further pain, she went perfectly still.

I pulled out a pen light and clicked it to life. With the woman stationary, I realized that I recognized our captive. Long, raven black hair tied back in a loose ponytail, the woman from the Speakeasy looked entirely different. It wasn’t just the hairstyle. Even restrained by Mila, the black-haired woman managed to exude defiance and wariness, in equal measure. Her eyes darted to each of us in turn; then, obviously frustrated by finding nothing useful in the blank, featureless visors of our motorcycle helmets, she settled for glaring at the floor of the trailer hard enough to burn a hole straight through to the asphalt beneath.

I shut my mouth and willed Mila to do the same. The black-haired woman had seen our faces at the Speakeasy. There had been so much noise at the Speakeasy, so many different people talking and cheering and dancing. There was almost no chance that she’d be able to recognize our voices.

Almost.

It was just safer not to risk it. Besides, I had work to do. While the trucks were stopped and before our eavesdropper communicated with the Texan long enough to send reinforcements our way, we had an opportunity to steal some information from him. I wouldn’t get anything useful to our crusade against the Magi. I probably wouldn’t even find data on the rest of the Community. There was simply too much information and the odds of lighting upon the right file at once weren’t worth considering. I only wanted to make this robbery look authentic. Then, we could reach back out to the Texan and, hopefully, receive a better reception to our offer.

There weren’t just servers loaded in the trailer, although servers were highly represented among the truck’s contents. There were also black ledgers, journals, photo albums, and recordings in a dozen different audio formats, all neatly stacked in tall rows that reached all the way up to the ceiling. Each row was secured with an intricate series of straps and buckles, designed to keep everything perfectly in place.

I ran my hands over the pallets as I passed them, stunned by the quantity of information. This was more than a single man could gather in his entire lifetime, no matter how connected and motivated that man might be. Just the contents of one truck rivaled all of the information I’d collected in the last three years of my criminal career, before I’d retired and split from Devlin both personally and professionally. Granted, secrets hadn’t been an interest of mine, but it still meant that I was dealing with a flatly absurd amount of collected, collated knowledge.

At the back of the trailer – or, really, the front, because it was closest to the cab – there was a steel table welded into the walls of the trailer. In front of that table was a steel chair and, on top of the table, a laptop connected to a monitor that appeared to be wired to the trailer itself. Cords expanded in a messy pattern from the monitor, up the walls of the trailer, and vanishing into the cracks and seams in all of the far corners. Lines of code stretched across the laptop, static and unchanging.

The monitor displayed a camera image of the interstate. I recognized the angle and the odd fish-eye effect from my own experience. As we weren’t moving, the camera didn’t display any changes in our scenery, so it looked more like a still photo than a live feed. Only the gentle rustling of wind through the trees on the side of the interstate gave away its true nature.

I barely paid attention to that, though. The code was far more interesting. I only glanced at it, but even that glance was enough to tell me that I was looking at something extraordinary. It wasn’t elegant or graceful code, like the sort of things that I’d been taught by Frizzle to replicate, but it was effective. Almost brutally so. There were redundant protections in place every few lines, presumably designed to insure that no one attacker or attack method could succeed.

I blinked, knelt and squinted harder at the code. I’d never seen anything quite like the program and couldn’t really guess at its purpose without more research, but it felt familiar. If code could have a personality…then I knew exactly whose personality was represented on that screen.

Surprise would be key. I stalked back to the rear area of the truck, deliberately exaggerating my actions for effect. Mila and Michel were both standing near the black haired woman, who was now in a slightly more comfortable position on the floor. Barrett was hunting through a collection of flash drives in the corner. So much the better.

I knelt in front of the black haired woman and lifted her chin, so that her dark eyes stared directly into the black visor obscuring my face.

Max?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything. But, caught off guard and in a state of distress, she couldn’t keep her eyes from widening or her breath from catching in her throat. It wasn’t much of a tell, but it was enough.

Max. MaxHeadroom. Premiere conspiracy theorist of the Community, live and in color.

She was…shorter than I would have expected.

Chapter 90

Three trucks ahead of us. At the most conservative estimate, we could be looking at upwards of a dozen men in the backs of those trucks, ready and able to defend the Texan’s trove of information from any would-be thieves. An incalculable wealth of knowledge, carefully collected and curated by what could very well be the world’s premiere seller of secrets, and that stash stood a very real chance of containing my only hope of preserving my identity from the Mouse. A steadily dwindling clock, winding down on a system I’d built and stashed overseas as the nucleus of my international network. Four of us, riding two home-brew motorcycles at perilous speeds down a darkened, lonely interstate with only the vaguest outlines of a plan.

One chance to pull it all off.

Numbers flew through my head at blinding speed, zipping past like the power poles and trees in my peripheral vision. Every second brought us closer to the trucks, to the moment when thought would necessarily yield to action. I couldn’t tell if the heavy thumps I felt in my bones, straight down to my feet, came from my own panicked heartbeat or from the machinery beneath me. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, it was possible that I might have thrown up, simply from the stress.

I reached inside and pushed all of that down, as deep as I could manage. It took effort that I knew I’d pay for later, but I did it anyway. Think. I needed to think.

The three trucks were, essentially, identical. I could only see them from the rear until we drew nearer and Mila led the three motorcycles in a wide arc to one side. As far as I could see, nothing distinguished any one vehicle from the others. That was fine. For our purposes, it didn’t matter what information we stole – or even if we successfully got away with anything – so long as our attempt seemed credible enough to concern the Texan.

You saw them load servers into these trucks?” I asked Mila. My voice was so calm that I almost didn’t recognize it.

Her answer was difficult to make out over the wind, the thrumming of the motorcycle’s expose engine, and the steadily increasing rumble of the trucks. “They were filling the last one when I got to the depot,” she said. “I don’t know about the other two, though.”

That meant there was a possibility that the Texan was using two of the trucks as decoys. I considered that, asked myself what I could possibly do in that scenario, and decided to take a risk. The Texan was acting to protect himself, but he wasn’t acting hastily. For one thing, he’d taken a few days to plan and orchestrate this move, for one thing. For another, he hadn’t hired any overt protection to escort the trucks to their destination. It seemed to me like the actions of a man who’d decided, after some careful thought, that his assets would be better secured elsewhere.

Of course, I couldn’t be sure. These trucks could all be decoys, for all I knew. Thinking like that wouldn’t do me any good, though, so I stuffed those fears into the same hole as my nausea and uncertainty.

We want to peel that rear truck off from the other two,” I said, injecting as much confidence and surety into my voice as it could hold. “Isolate and stop it before the driver has an opportunity to mount a real defense.”

And the others?” Barrett asked.

If four people on motorcycles take down an eighteen wheeler on the open road? I’m thinking the other drivers will decide that it isn’t worth risking the chance of a larger ambush waiting in the wings.”

Are we worried about a larger ambush waiting in the wings?”

Hard to set an ambush at speed,” I said. “If they had someone waiting to pounce, we’d have noticed them.”

It’s not impossible to do that sort of thing,” Mila said.

I stared at the back of her head through the hazy blackness of my visor.

What?” She asked, as if she could feel the intensity of my glare. “I’m just saying. It only means that we have to act fast. Hit the truck and get out before they have a chance to bring any serious forces to bear.”

I took a deep breath and rolled my shoulders to loosen the tension accumulating between my shoulder blades. “Michel, Barrett: I want you two to swing wide to the right. Keep the target from taking an off ramp while we’re making our move. Mila and I will come up on the left, try and force the driver to stop or slow down.”

How are you going to do that?” Michel asked.

Mila took one hand off of the throttle, temporarily sending my heartbeat into the high triple digits, so that she could pull up one leg of her jeans. A handgun was nestled there in a tiny ankle holster. While she couldn’t reach it easily, I was in a position to quickly retrieve the weapon and pass it to her.

We’ll work something out,” I said, in answer to Michel’s question.

From his position ahead of us, he lifted a hand in acknowledgment.  Reflexively, my eyes traced from his upraised hand down to his ankle.  There, barely visible under the cuff of his jeans, I thought I spotted a glint of metal.  My mind took a moment to reach the obvious conclusion.

Even Michel was carrying now?  Had he been carrying all day?  Or, while they’d been speaking to Mila’s local contacts, had she convinced him that it would be in his best interest to start keeping protection on him at all times?  Or, I supposed, was it possible that he’d armed himself after coming back to the hotel to retrieve me?

I told myself that it didn’t matter.  What minor uneasiness I felt was vastly overshadowed by my faith in his ability to act wisely.  Just because he had a gun of his own didn’t mean he was suddenly going to start acting out of character.  If he was in any situation when he needed to shoot someone, I damn well wanted him to have the means to protect himself.

I opened my mouth to order all of us into action, but the trucks ahead of us slowed marginally before I could say anything.  As I watched, the front two trucks began drifting to the left side of the road, so smoothly that it must have been choreographed.  When all three eighteen wheelers were aligned diagonally from one side of the street to the other, they gradually returned up to speed in sequence.  The end result was a solid wall of metal and machinery, comprised of the vehicles.  They’d moved from a parallel line into an impassable blockade in only ten or fifteen seconds.

One idea down,” Barrett said.  He couldn’t quite keep a little bit of sarcasm from his tone. 

I might have replied to that sarcasm in kind, if I hadn’t been fervently revising half-drawn battle plans in my head.  There wasn’t enough of a gap between any two of the eighteen wheelers for us to take advantage of.  It might technically be possible to squeeze one of the motorcycles through the thin canyon, but it would require perfection on a level that I wasn’t about to bank on.  If one of the drivers turned their wheel fractionally in any direction, we’d end up crushed between the metal walls of their containers or squashed beneath their over-sized wheels.

Wherever they’re going,” Barrett said, “they aren’t going to be using any off ramps.”

How do you know that?” I asked.

If any of those trucks leaves, they’ll be opening up the others to the kind of attack you were thinking of at first,” he said.  “So they’ve got to be planning on staying together the whole way.”

How long can they stay like that?”  Not one of the three eighteen wheelers had wavered so far, but that level of precision and concentration couldn’t be maintained for very long.

How long can you afford to follow them?” Barrett asked, in response.  “Their gas tanks are just bigger than ours.  If we try to wear them out, we’ll just end up stranded while they make their getaway.”

I bit back a curse.  He was right, of course.  And, even if we had limitless gas tanks, a protracted confrontation wasn’t in our favor.  Our only real advantage was the element of surprise.  The Texan and, by extension, the drivers hadn’t known to expect us.  Now that we were openly in pursuit, it was only a matter of time before serious reinforcements were called in to intercept us.

What about the roadway shoulder?” Michel asked.  He pointed briefly with one finger at the bumpy side of the interstate.

Even with my limited knowledge of automotive technology, I was absolutely certain that Adel hadn’t constructed these motorcycles to go off-roading.  They might be able to endure some abuse but, again, I wasn’t willing to bet that they’d stay at speed without shaking themselves apart before too long. 

Not if we want to stay on these things,” I said.  As if it understood me, the motorcycle punctuated my sentence with a high-pitched scratching sound.

Not for us,” Michel said.  “For them.”  He used that same finger to point at the trucks on either side of the road.

Briefly, I allowed myself to think about that as an option.  Damaging the information wasn’t ideal, but the information itself wasn’t our real goal.  Besides, I severely doubted that the Texan didn’t have backups stashed in a half dozen different locations around Texas…if not around the world, for that matter.  And an attack focused on damaging his supply of knowledge would probably accomplish the same thing as one dedicated to stealing it. 

In a distant corner of my mind, I realized that I was thinking in words like ‘probably’ and ‘maybe’ more than was ideal.  I dedicated a split second to smothering that voice before it could make any more astute observations.

Suggestions?” I asked.

PIT them,” Barrett answered immediately.  There was just enough emphasis on the word that I got the impression it was an acronym and not a term of its own.

I wanted to ask what he meant by ‘PIT,’ but hesitated for a moment.  It wasn’t the time or place to be worried about my pride, but that didn’t stop my ego from getting in the way anyway. 

Mila saved me by volunteering the information all on her own.  “How exactly are you going to force them to turn?  With these motorcycles?”

It’s not perfect,” Barrett said, “but it has a chance of working.  They don’t have a lot room to maneuver out of the way, except to go off of the road.  If they move toward the center, then they’ll all probably crash.’

But that’s not telling us how,” Mila said.

Don’t need to force them to turn,” he replied.  “We just need to encourage them to stop.  You could probably do it with that gun at your ankle, couldn’t you?”

From where he was, in the dark, riding at breakneck speeds, there was no way he could have seen Mila reveal her handgun to me.  That meant he must have noticed it back at the junkyard…but when?  How?

If you hit one of the axles,” Michel said, “it could work. They would have to stop to deal with that or else they’d risk disaster further down the road.”

Miss a shot like that and they’ll run into disaster right now,” Mila said.  “If you flip the damn trucks, we’d probably still die.  The drivers absolutely would.”

I was surprised to hear that from Mila’s lips, before I realized that she was probably only voicing the concern for my benefit. Normally, I would have been upset at the presumption of speaking on my behalf. This time, I wanted to kiss her. These people were just doing their job. They were drivers, like Michel. Nothing they’d done to us or, as far as I knew, to anyone meant that they should be hurt or killed.

Then don’t miss?”  I could practically hear the shrug in Barrett’s voice.  “Sarah, it’s your show; what do you think?”

What I thought was that I didn’t want to have to make that decision. Once again, I remembered that this entire fiasco was a mess of my own making. At any moment, I could abandon my identity as Sarah Ford and vanish into the wind until we dealt with the Magi, one way or another. My teammates wouldn’t be in danger, I’d be freed of all the obligations and responsibilities that came with that name, and we wouldn’t have to go through with this.

What I said came from a well of nearly delusional confidence that I didn’t know that I possessed. “Mila, can you do it?”

If the trucks don’t change speeds? If the wind doesn’t start blowing hard in any particular direction? If I don’t hit a bump in the road while I’m steering and aiming?” She made an indelicate sound, amplified by the comms. “I can do it.”

She sounded markedly less sure of herself than I was used to, which I understood on a visceral level. I decided to believe in her own self-assessment instead of trying to pick apart Mila’s innermost thoughts.

Alright,” I said.

She and I didn’t need to exchange any more words on the matter. Mila pushed the motorcycle harder and sent a fresh wave of increasingly violent tremors through the motorcycle’s body. I held on to her for dear life and tried to ignore the graphic possibilities my brain helpfully provided. We were close enough to the trucks that it only took a handful of seconds before we were about ten yards behind the one on the far right, nearest to the shoulder.

I took one hand from around her waist and shakily retrieved her handgun from the ankle holster. She gripped the motorcycle with her knees as she accepted the weapon.

Hold on tight,” she said, as if I hadn’t already been trying to squeeze her to death.

Mila blew out a breath, gripped the motorcycle with her knees, and then sat straight up in the seat. Most of the wind was blocked by the truck, so she wasn’t blown back or off of the bike. With both hands, she brought the handgun up and kept it steady for far longer than I would’ve thought possible under the conditions.

Don’t miss,” she muttered to herself.

Less than two heartbeats before Mila squeezed the trigger, all three of the trucks slowed and swerved sharply to the right. They moved in unison, like a single organism instead of three distinct drivers piloting several tons worth of machine. Our target drove straight over the shoulder, until it drove through the grass at a steep angle. Mila’s shot kicked up a chunk of asphalt that pinged and whizzed beneath the undercarriage of the eighteen wheeler, before rocketing out in our direction. Immediately, Mila dropped the gun and lowered her body to the motorcycle’s chassis again. She jerked the handlebars to the left, away from the shoulder and the potentially lethal projectile we’d accidentally created.

Are you okay?” Mila asked me.

I couldn’t speak. My heartbeat was sounding like a marching band’s bass drum in my ears, physically painful in its intensity. Breathing had become a thing that I had to consciously direct. In, then out. In, then out. Bile welled up in my stomach, climbed all the way up my throat, and threatened to force its way out through my mouth. I accepted that as an inevitability but, miraculously, the sickness receded just enough for me to power through.

I’m fine,” I said finally. “Barrett, Michel?”

I am okay,” Michel said.

What was that?” Barrett asked.

I missed,” Mila answered. “The trucks moved. The one on the right drove off the damn road for a couple of seconds there.”

Through the fog of panic and terror, my brain latched onto that sentence. The trucks had done something that made no sense. Just as Mila had been readying her shot, the eighteen wheelers had driven themselves off the road. It was almost as if the drivers had known what she’d planning.

Oh no,” I said. “Oh no.”

What is it?” Mila asked.

When we’d been planning to isolate one from both sides, they’d moved into a wall to thwart that tactic. When we’d changed strategies to target an axle, they had adapted at just the right moment to make her miss. It wasn’t luck and it certainly wasn’t planning. The only way they could have known what we’d been thinking was if they were in our heads. Or, more specifically, in our ears.

The drivers of these trucks weren’t psychics. It was difficult to believe, but someone was listening to our communications. They had to be. That was the only explanation. And, as long as I was riding a death machine with those same communications routed through a tablet I couldn’t access, I couldn’t do anything to tell my team about it.